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KD Sunday Spotlight: Nurses support caregivers and patients battling cancer at UPMC

KD Sunday Spotlight: Steel Ribbons
KD Sunday Spotlight: Steel Ribbons 05:17

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - "Liz and I met in York, Pennsylvania," said Roger Kirwin.

It was love at first sight for Roger and Liz Kirwin, and at times, from a distance since Roger lived in England. 

The miles were no match for their love and their loyalty which led them to 29 years of marriage. 

"Liz was a very laid back, very loving kind of person, very peaceable," said Roger.

It was that true love that motivated Roger through Liz's ovarian cancer treatment at UPMC Magee-Women's Hospital. 

"Surgeries, chemotherapy, all the back and forth from Bedford to Pittsburgh for treatments until she became too ill," said Roger. "Four days short of the second anniversary of [her] diagnosis, she died."

Sadly, Liz passed away on January 13, 2021, and Roger took care of her until the very end. 

"It's rather like a dark cloak descends upon you, it dulls your senses, it dulls your sense of reality to a degree because you're caring for that person as a primary caregiver," he said. "You're looking after them, and you're not necessarily looking after yourself." 

That was until Roger found the Family Care Center at Magee. They provide support to families facing gynecologic cancer.  

"[I] very sheepishly knock on the door, Mary [Roberge] would be there," said Roger. "She would ask, 'How is it going? How do you feel as the caregiver?' It made a huge difference to me. It had a huge impact on the way things were. All of a sudden I didn't feel [that] as a caregiver I was really alone."

"He just needed a way to find his voice for himself and he did that," said Roberge.

Roberge recently retired as the center's coordinator and a nurse but she returned to volunteer to continue helping caregivers like Roger navigate their new normal. 

"We want to make sure you have the right tools in your toolbelt to do this job to get on with every day and to make sure you stay emotionally healthy," said Roberge.

"They often don't have someone to share that deep worry, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, all those emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis," said Dr. Heidi Donovan who is the director of the Family CARE Center and Steel Ribbons Co-Founder. "So we convince them that we're that buffer. They're welcome to come down to the center. We'll make them a cup of coffee, and they can get it off their chest."

She said they provide psychosocial support, training, and education through the center's own caregiver guide, which teaches caregivers how to maintain their health as well as communicate with loved ones. 

In 2021, Dr. Donavan, along with her fellow nursing professor Dr. Grace Campbell, created Steel Ribbons, providing thousands of dollars to families in need. 

"The biggest issue became finances, where are they going to stay that night? How are they going to pay for the gas to get home? Did they have money for a copay or were they not going to pick up the medication? We were starting to feel helpless about it," said Dr. Donovan.

Dr. Donovan said it's difficult to get funds for gynecologic cancer because it's less common compared to others but it's still a high-risk disease. 

"There's a huge push right now across the country to change policy, so family caregivers get the support they need, and they don't have to face these kinds of financial hardships," Dr. Donovan said. "So, a lot of what we hope to do is push those agendas as well."

Here in Pittsburgh, the family care center is the only one of its kind in the region making sure that caregivers know, they are not forgotten. 

"We want caregivers to know that someone here has eyes on them and someone here is here for them," said Roberge. "Certainly this is a hospital; certainly it's about our patients. We absolutely want caregivers to know that we have a team just here for them."

"Whereas the physicians were taking care of her [Liz], the Family Care Center was really looking out for me, and that is just what I needed," said Roger. "I really did need that. They were invaluable to me. I am extremely grateful to them."

Proving that sometimes, the best treatment is a room full of supporters who help lead and always listen. 

In 2021, Steel Ribbons provided more than $6,000 to 53 families. 

They're hoping to expand their reach to AHN's gynecology program. 

You can donate to their cause at this link

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