The minutes from midnight to 5 a.m. can be the hardest for cancer patients, who find themselves living a waking nightmare that just won't go away.
Sleep can be bliss, but it is often elusive. Awake at 3 a.m. while his wife slept on a portable bed nearby several months ago, Rich Lloyd pondered what a brain tumor was doing to his life and his future.
And then his friend, nurse Jay Rezac, walked in. With the daytime buzz of the Huntsman Cancer Hospital fallen silent, the two men had one in a series of late-night chats that Lloyd would never forget. He would share those memories with his wife, Marianne, until the day he died last April.
"Rich loved Jay," Marianne said. "They hit it off on his first admittance," when the former Harvard Business School graduate and Dell corporate executive found himself back in his hometown. Doctors in Boston advised him to see a specialist at Huntsman as his best chance to survive.
Because Rezac worked the night shift, "I think I slept through most of the care Jay gave Rich," Marianne said. Her husband would recount how easy the conversation was with Rezac. "They really developed their friendship while I was sleeping."
Late one night after Rich got four pints of blood during a transfusion, he began serenading his sleeping wife to the tune of, "I Feel Good." Groggy after a long day at the hospital, Marianne began chiding her husband, but Rezac reminded her to "let him sing, Marianne. He feels good and that (the blood) is his good juice. He's like a new person."
When she came to her senses, Marianne realized he was right. "I'll never forget Rich feeling good and Jay celebrating because of it," she remembers.
While such memories may seem a small thing in the bigger scheme of cancer and chemo, it is those quiet, happy, even joyful moments in the midst of what many see as tragedy that can make or break the spirit of a sick patient.
So in memory of the love Rezac showed for her husband, Marianne Lloyd has ensured that Rich's favorite night nurse will be honored next month at the 15th annual Honors for Nursing awards banquet, hosted by the University of Utah College of Nursing and the Nursing Alumni Association.
"Jay struck the perfect balance between providing the best medical care for the patient, based on his knowledge of the disease, with a genuine interest in helping to meet the needs of his soul," she said. As Rich fought for his life, family members made red plastic "Live Rich" bracelets for family and friends to wear as a show of support.
Rezac began wearing one and it was on his wrist the day he helped admit Rich to the hospital for the final time. "The gesture meant a great deal to us on what was a very difficult day," Marianne said. "To see Jay still wearing his bracelet really indicated to us how much he cared."
To this day, Rezac still wears the bracelet as a reminder of his former patient and friend.
"With Rich and Marianne, it's like the light never went out," he said. "Even when he died it didn't go out. ... Even when he knew he wasn't doing very good, he would smile and it was all OK."
With a better understanding than most in his shoes, Rezac cared for Rich and his family with personal knowledge of how cancer impacts families. His first wife is a cancer survivor, and he walked the journey with her before he became a nurse.
Now he spends his life watching the same kinds of dramas play out, not as an observer but as an active participant with those who live and those who die. How does he deal with the personal emotions that go with caring for people at their most vulnerable, particularly when it becomes clear they won't get well?
"I get my goodbyes out, I make sure of that," he said. "They are never forgotten. I do the best I can because (patients who died) are watching me now. But it never came up between me and Rich to talk about dying … It was never what he had planned."
During his final hospital admission last April, friends and family rallied to run part of the Salt Lake Marathon in his honor. Marianne will run a half-marathon on Saturday in honor of her husband, who was "mad as hell that he couldn't get out and cheer them on," Rezac remembers.
"He made us smile. It was an honor and a privilege to take care of him. If all my patients were like Rich, they wouldn't have to pay me to be here. He was a sweetheart."
Nominate a nurse:
The annual Honors For Nursing banquet allows patients who want to recognize a nurse who provided exceptional care to do so for a $25 tax-deductible contribution, which includes dinner for the nominee on Tuesday, May 12 at 6 p.m. at the Grand America Hotel. Nominators can also attend for an additional fee of $25. Proceeds from the event fund scholarships for students at the University of Utah College of Nursing. To recognize a nurse, visit www.honorsfornursing.org or or call Sue Onwuegbu at 801-581-5109. Deadline for nominations is April 24.