Honoring a Hero of My Heart


I still check Ken’s email. I’m not sure why. I just like knowing it’s still there and active. And it’s still something I monitor on his behalf should anything of substance ever arrive. It’s one of the more mundane ways I honor him.

I’ve long ago archived all the emails that he sent and received personally–or ones I sent on his behalf. Now I just check the inbox from time to time and delete the spam or long-ago-subscribed-to newsletters. One day last week I clicked on the lone message in the inbox and tapped the delete key. But just as it vanished I saw a few words of the subject: DEADLINE EXTENDED.

Curious, I clicked into the trash and read the entire subject line: “DEADLINE EXTENDED: Nominate your nurse & win a trip!” I read further and was intrigued to learn it was an essay contest to nominate an oncology nurse you feel went above and beyond in caring for you or a loved one. It clicked so easily for me to write about Blanca, “Kenny’s girlfriend,” and main nursing squeeze during his chemotherapy treatments at the Creticos Cancer Center.

With only seven days to write a 700-1,000 word essay, I set to work on this labor of love. But time was of the essence for such a daunting task. So last Sunday I dropped Kallie off at daycare so I could write at my favorite coffee shop. Writing about this time in my life is still very emotional for me, so I figured working in a public forum would force me to hold it together and power through. And it did! For the most part. After multiple read-throughs and edits, I submitted it on Sunday evening, with a few days to spare before the deadline.

I decided to stop by the cancer center yesterday to tell her I’d nominated her for the Extraordinary Healer Award, to give her a printed out copy of the essay and tell her why I nominated her. For Ken, really. (One of the less mundane ways I honor him.) And for me and our family. Our gratitude to her and the nursing staff is boundless. She and I actually had time to sit down for a few minutes so I could tell her about the nomination, and why I nominated her, and–again–how grateful I am for the love and care she showered upon Ken during his treatments.

I have no illusions of winning the competition. I know there are many worthy nurses and more agile writers than I to tell their stories. I’m certain my piece is tinged with more sentimentality that I would have liked. But it’s the only way I can see that time in my life from where I am now.

The real “win” for me is just having someone like Blanca to write about and be grateful for.

With Beautiful Blanca when I stopped by to give her my essay.

With Beautiful Blanca when I stopped by to give her my essay.

Here is the essay I submitted.

Kenny’s Girlfriend

By Ron Stempkowski (March 24, 2013)

Nurses are heroes. There is no doubt in my mind. Nurses who devote themselves to caring for people battling cancer are a special breed of hero; an elite force who lovingly carry out their duties regardless of how the mission might end with each patient. Their dedication is as unyielding as it is impressive.

Blanca Vargas, RN, BSN, OCN, is a first-class example of this type of hero. Her presence at the Creticos Cancer Center transformed the Infusion Room from a cold, sterile facility into a room filled with caring and laughter–and even a touch of cozy.

For my husband Kenny Anderson, Blanca was the face of his infusion treatments at Creticos. Her reassuring smile. Her cooing voice. Her gentle yet capable touch. He never looked forward to the treatment, but always looked forward to seeing “his” Blanca. Her warmth drew us both in and earned her a place on the highest shelf in our esteem.

I accompanied him to most all of his treatments during the year he underwent them. I can still remember meeting Blanca for the first time as she prepared Kenny for his first chemotherapy session. So sweet and jovial as she donned the required and intimidating hazmat garb, she made the whole daunting process seem a little more routine, easing two very unnerved gentlemen’s minds. It was late winter, and she talked about the promise of spring. It so perfectly demonstrated her optimistic point of view.

Ever the performer, having a loyal audience participant helped Kenny pass the time while receiving treatment. Blanca engaged him in conversation, listened intently as he shared stories, and shared stories of her own. It wasn’t long before Kenny and Blanca became the best of “dancing” partners as they played off each other effortlessly, usually resulting in uproarious laughter from their adoring audience–of which I was lucky enough to a part.

Their mutual crush soon became so obvious to me I began referring to Blanca as Kenny’s “girlfriend.” And not long after, she and the entire staff were in it. Their affinity for each other was palpable–and so delightfully palatable. No matter how poorly he was feeling as I drove him to treatment, watching his demeanor transform and lighten when he saw Blanca was a delicious treat I always loved to witness; and one that was so good for him.

With Kenny (and all her patients, no doubt) Blanca understood the subtle yet powerful importance of touch. I can still see the Zen smile that would brighten his face when she would touch his arm or gently rub his back, murmuring sweet words of encouragement to him.

As Kenny’s husband and partner, I watched helplessly as either cancer or chemotherapy drugs devastated his body. I was his constant albeit stressed-out 24/7 caregiver, and taking him to Creticos for treatment was a respite for me, knowing Blanca would tend to his every need and indulgence–even if I was sitting right next to him. She understood not only what Ken was going through, but what I was going through as well. I could breathe a little easier while we were there.

As Kenny’s condition deteriorated, he remained steadfast in his optimism–as did Blanca. I so appreciated having another pylon to stand strong with me in support of Kenny. We knew we were going to lose him, but focusing on it would have been paralyzing to him, me, and our family. She was such a great help to me in that regard. Knowing she’d cared for so many patients who had ultimately died and yet remaining so hopeful and positive and light shored up my courage to do the same.

When he was hospitalized across the street from Creticos, Blanca and the other nurses came to visit him. Though his terminal diagnosis was difficult for both he and I to grasp, Blanca’s demeanor didn’t change. She was the same, unwavering fan of Kenny that she’d always been. It’s that kind of loving consistency that I found nothing short of remarkable.

Though Blanca is deservedly the topic of this essay, I’d be remiss in not pointing out that she is but one star among a constellation of other professionals who together spun a lattice of care around my Kenny as he valiantly battled cancer.

Since Kenny died I still visit my heroes at Creticos at least twice a year, taking them the same home-baked goods I brought when Kenny was undergoing treatment. As soon as anyone on the nursing staff sees me, their face brightens and they squeal, “Blanca will be so happy to see you!” before going off to find her for me.

Though the first couple of times were bittersweet–the wounds from losing Kenny were fresh–Blanca is the kind of person you just can’t help hugging. Now it’s like going to see an old friend. And that’s exactly what she is.

Except my friend is a hero.



0 Replies to “Honoring a Hero of My Heart”

  1. I’m all bleary eyed and tearful, Ron … I honestly can’t find the right words (not a usual problem for me). This just stopped me dead in my tracks and sent me deep into my inner worries, fears, remembrances of loss (my little brother dying tragically one summer of meningitis) … and all of it good, cathartic, healthful. So … thanks for sharing your struggles, triumphs and quotidian heartaches. Thanks much. Mark

    1. Thank you, Mark. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. I can’t tell you what it means to hear that this was even just a little bit helpful to you. It’s my greatest hope for this blog. My very best to you.

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