HOLYOKE, Mass. — Martha Keochareon gave throughout her life. As a mother and then a nurse, she supported those around her. In the last days of her life, she became a teacher, helping two nursing students from Holyoke Community College understand the medical lessons of the pancreatic cancer she suffered from. And more importantly, she offered them a chance for a close-up experience with someone close to death.
Born and raised in Holyoke, Keochareon attended the nursing program at the college when she was in her 40s. Keochareon, who was profiled in a New York Times story in January about her work with HCC, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006. She died Dec. 29.
In November, Keochareon called the college and left her offer in a voice message. In a voice made reedy by the tumors around her neck, Keochareon introduced herself as an alumna of the school.
"I have cancer, and I'm wondering if you'll need somebody to do a case study of a hospice patient," said Keochareon, who was receiving hospice care in her home. "Maybe some nurses just want to feel what a tumor feels like or all the problems that go along with hospice."
Kelly Keane, the counselor in the nursing program who received the message, was immediately intrigued. She met with Keochareon and began to talk with professors and administrators about the possibility.
In order to work with Keochareon, students would need to miss the clinical rotations that are typically required in the nursing program, so Keane set out to find a student with previous medical experience. A professor recommended Michelle Elliot, 52, a first-year nursing student who already is a licensed practical nurse and is working toward becoming a registered nurse.
When Elliot met with Keane to discuss the project, her friend and fellow nursing student Cindy Santiago, 27, sat outside the office, eagerly hoping to be invited to join. In the end, both Elliot and Santiago worked with Keochareon.
This month, the college announced an effort to remember Keochareon with a scholarship for HCC nursing students. Her daughter, Barbara Dimauro, who is organizing the effort, said the scholarship is fitting because it is in the spirit of Keochareon's generosity.
Dimauro said the relationship formed between her mother and the students was not only a learning opportunity for Santiago and Elliot, but also a chance for Keochareon to continue to feel useful.
"She was sick for so long," said Dimauro. "To not be able to work, and you know, not always feel like you're contributing something, I think was really difficult for her."
The students each visited Keochareon several times in November and December. Initially, their visits were focused on medical questions. Keochareon had Santiago and Elliot wear uniforms and badges in their early meetings, said Keane.
"She was acting like a teacher at first," said Keane.
The students studied pancreatic cancer, and came prepared to ask Keochareon about her diagnoses and symptoms. They took her vitals and performed basic exams. In their later visits, however, they were less focused on asking medical questions and practicing their skills. Instead, Keane said they had to learn to slow down and listen to Keochareon.
"They studied pancreatic cancer and went in and compared and contrasted and tried to learn about the disease itself. But it was more about how to die with dignity, how to be with someone who is in pain — how to just sit and be with them in that space," said Keane.
"Nursing has become very fast," Keane said.
With Keochareon, they stopped that pace.
Santiago said she believes her work with Keochareon was valuable experience for her future as a nurse, because she was able to spend quality time with her and develop a relationship.
In fact, she is now considering going into hospice care when she graduates. "I like the fact that you get to spend more time with the patient one on one," she said.
Dimauro aims to continue her mother's legacy by endowing a scholarship fund in her honor at HCC. The scholarships will be awarded to one or more nursing students in their second year of study. Non-traditional students, Holyoke residents, and those who have volunteered for Baystate Hospice Care — which provided care for Keochareon in her final months — will be given priority.
Dimauro is raising money for the scholarship through donations and by hosting events. According to Keith McKittrick, the director of development at HCC, the fund must reach $15,000 in order for it to qualify as an endowed scholarship, rather than a short-term fund that is depleted each year.
For Keane, working with Keochareon was a deeply personal experience. She said the gift Keochareon gave her was her friendship.
In December, HCC recognized Keochareon's generosity by making her an honorary professor of nursing. According to Keane, the faculty unanimously supported the honor. Keane presented Keochareon with a certificate, saying — "it was unanimous, Martha."
But the certificate misspelled Keochareon's name —adding an "e'' to the end.
Keane received another voice message from Keochareon alerting her to the mistake. "I hope you have a great day," said Keochareon at the end of a message left 17 days before she died. "This is one of the best days of my life. Thank you."
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