Oncology Caregiver – Right Place, Right Time

Here was the reality  – her checking account balance was less than $100. Here was the perception – her future was shattered.

That’s how Charlotte Diehl described the start of a life that took sharp turns down a twisting road. That road could have taken her any number of directions – even to a dead end. But instead, Diehl ended up at IU Health University Hospital where she warmly cares for patients at the Women’s Hematology/Oncology Clinic.

Diehl, 28, was born and raised in Fremont – a town in the northeastern Indiana county of Steuben populated by just over 2,000 residents. The area is known for an annual summer music festival, a picturesque state park, and the Fremont High School eagles.

And like an eagle, Diehl graduated from high school in 2007 determined to soar. She packed her bags and moved south where she enrolled in East Tennessee State University. Her focus was on a career in nursing.

But the path took another turn when her grandfather died of complications from lung cancer. 

“His diagnosis hit us hard. It was the first cancer death in our family,” said Diehl. “Looking back I think that experience had this pull on me wanting to help others.”

But the timing wasn’t right.

“I felt pressure to succeed and I was unsure of myself. It’s like I just wasn’t prepared to live on my own,” said Diehl. So she moved back to Indiana, enrolled in a few classes, and worked in retail. She also met a guy who became the father of her child.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I was just careless,” said Diehl. “I had no plans. I felt defeated. I was down on myself and I thought that kind of love was what I needed.”

As she talks, Diehl blots tears from her cheeks. Some are tears of disappointment for a relationship that didn’t work out. Some are tears of gratitude for the people who support her and her daughter now.

“The motherly instincts kicked in,” said Diehl. “I needed goals – not just for me but for my daughter.”

Three years ago, Diehl said her older sister “took a leap of faith” and invited Diehl and her daughter to move to Indianapolis.

“My sister worked as an inpatient social worker at the hospital and her husband was an RN. They didn’t have children at the time and they asked us to move in with them,” said Diehl. Looking back, Diehl realizes it was also a leap of faith on her part.

For the next year, Diehl and her daughter lived with Caroline and Aaron Lipp. She got a job working 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. and began to map her future.

“My whole focus was to be a good mom and get back on my feet. I couldn’t have done it without their help,” said Diehl. It was her sister who suggested Diehl revisit her original goal of working in healthcare. In high school Diehl had obtained certification as a nursing assistant. It was a start. Three years ago, she quit her night job and started working at IU Health as a patient caregiver in oncology. A year later she started nursing school.

“I really believe that by being introduced to the experience of patient care I could see the tiny steps that I was making to better understand how cancer impacts not only the patient but the whole family. I wanted to be more involved in the process,” said Diehl.  “I love the satisfaction of being able to help someone even in a small way – helping them find where to go or giving them the next level of resources.”

In addition to going to nursing school, she moved out on her own (just 15 minutes away from her sister), purchased a vehicle, and continues to serve as the primary caregiver for her daughter who just turned five.

It can be hectic.

She recently completed a five-month, five-hour Saturday class that left one day a week clear. Most weeks Diehl’s schedule includes waking up early, dropping her daughter at daycare, heading off to the hospital, picking her daughter up from daycare, preparing dinner, and playing and reading with her daughter before bedtime. Then Diehl studies before she heads off to bed and starts the routine over again – a discipline and determination that landed her on the Dean’s List.

“The nurses and co-workers here have been so encouraging. They’ve helped babysit, and always remind me I can do whatever I want to do. No matter what the circumstances I’m in, I can better myself,” said Diehl, who utilizes IU Health’s tuition reimbursement to fund her education.

“As hard as it is, I know this is where I need to be, what I need to do – working to make patients’ lives better and hopefully some day my daughter will reflect those choices.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.