Methodist nurse: “I was afraid that cancer was going to kill me”

Nichole Barnett faced down the disease with strength and unwavering love for her family.

Nichole Barnett is used to facing life and death moments as a nurse on the cardiovascular critical care unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

But at 37, she didn’t expect to be confronted with her own mortality.

It started with soreness on one side of her throat. She thought it was a problem with her lymph nodes, but then she noticed a lump in her neck. She showed it to her primary-care physician, and that’s when her world turned upside-down.

Tests revealed stage 3 head and neck cancer. It was one year ago this month, not long after Barnett’s 37th birthday.

“It was pretty terrifying,” she admitted. “I was afraid that cancer was going to kill me.”

Her first thought was for her family – husband Justin and their two teenage sons, Julian and Jedediah. It wasn’t so much the fear of dying herself, she said, but more the fear of her boys losing their mom.

They asked if she would survive. She didn’t have the answer then, but what she did have was an unwavering love for them and a determination to fight.

She put on a brave face and forged ahead with multiple surgeries, then seven weeks of chemo and radiation at Simon Cancer Center.

“I just felt I had to be strong for my kids,” said the Camby resident, who was inspired to become a nurse after being treated for a heart defect at Riley Hospital for Children when she was a toddler.

Funny thing though, the more positive she was, the more she believed she would get through it. She had plenty of help – from her family, from prayers, from friends and colleagues, including Jennifer Adams, shift coordinator in the CVCC, who organized a T-shirt fundraiser for Barnett.

“Nichole will fight hard for what is right for her patients,” Adams said. “I think this quality helped her through her journey. Many of our staff kept in contact with her while she was out, and what we saw was perseverance and faith. Although she ran into multiple obstacles, she remained strong. She kept looking forward.”

Barnett, now in remission, was finally able to return to work Jan. 7, a day she had looked forward to for eight months. But it was a bit of a culture shock, she said.

“So many things had changed and there were so many people I didn’t know, which was weird to me. It was like starting over again.”

She’s settling in now, working three 12-hour shifts a week and discovering a new sensibility to patients’ fears and concerns.

“I think I am different as a nurse,” she said. “I feel like I’ve always been a good advocate, but now I feel I have more empathy. I know what it’s like to have that fear that you’re going to lose someone.”

She also understands when patients are impatient for milestones. She used to remind her ICU patients that progress comes in baby steps. Now instead of just saying that, she really understands it.

“I remember when I just wanted to be able to drink water; I look back now and I’m starting to be able to eat chicken and things, but it took a long time to get here.”

Self-care is something nurses are notoriously bad at, Barnett said, but she is trying hard to take care of herself so she doesn’t get run down.

That includes taking time to enjoy the little things – movies with her family, shopping and just hanging out at home with her boys.

“A lot of people told me I inspired them because of my attitude. But I needed to be positive, I honestly think that helped me as well. There’s so many bad things that come with cancer, but so many good things come with it, too.”

For her, that means a closer relationship with her family and friends.

“You realize how much you mean to people and how much you need to be there for people.”

Jessica Jones, manager of clinical operations in the CVCC at Methodist, has worked with Barnett for eight years. She describes her as fighter with a “let’s-do-this attitude as a person and as a nurse.”

“She never tires of advocating for what is right for her patients and her teammates, and she approached cancer the same way. It was beautiful to see our team rally together around her.”

–- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist
   Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist