Oncology Nurse Channels Personal Tragedy Into Service
One in an ongoing series
Elizabeth Kerr’s career path was foreseeable very early in her life. She became a nurse’s aide at the age of 14, following in the footsteps of two of her older sisters.
“I just felt like this is something I really wanted to do,” says Kerr, Oncology Care Coordinator at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. She’s been a nurse for 29 years.
What Kerr couldn’t have foreseen is that she’d get her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing when she was 50 years old. Nor could she have anticipated the unfathomable loss that propelled her there.
Kerr’s 15-year-old son, Patrick, was killed in 2002 when he fell off his skateboard into the path of a tractor trailer.
Patrick had been a vocal opponent of the city’s decision to ban skateboarders from the iconic and safe haven of Love Park, and his death received front-page news.
“Four weeks after Love Park was shut down, he was killed on the street,” Kerr says.
From Grief to Giving and Self-Expression
Kerr fiercely embraced her son’s advocacy in the aftermath of his death. She co-founded a nonprofit, which resulted in the creation of Paine’s Park, a riverside skateboarding park near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a park in Abington named in Patrick’s honor. Kerr’s organization also created a scholarship fund at Roman Catholic High School, where Patrick was a freshman, which has provided more than 100 scholarships averaging $1,000 since it was created.
She also began to write.
“After I lost my son, it was a compulsion; I had to write,” she says. “I didn’t go back to work for a year. I just couldn’t work during that grieving process. I had a fear that I’d forget things, so I just wrote and wrote and wrote. When I did go back to work, I decided to go at night for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Arcadia University.”
Her work has been published and has won writing prizes in competitions. And she has channeled her grief into devotion to her patients.
“You have to have a reason to get out of bed when you lose a child,” Kerr says. “I had to do something to help other people. If I do, then I can help my own family. And that helps me.”
Kerr’s dedication to her cancer patients was intensified even further when she lost her older sister to ovarian cancer six years ago.
Meeting the Needs of Those With Cancer
Her mission is to provide cancer patients with everything they need to endure treatment and sustain recovery.
When newly diagnosed patients attend a mandatory education session – in which Kerr, other nurses, a social worker, financial advocate and dietician explain chemotherapy and describe available resources – Kerr says she “listens hard” to determine what patients need.
It can be anything from financial assistance to a change of clothes to insurance access to something as simple and fundamental as a thermometer. If patients develop a fever during chemo, it’s urgent that they contact their care team, and many patients don’t have a thermometer, Kerr says.
“We put together a welcome kit with things like a thermometer, a throw blanket, water bottle, lip balm,” Kerr says. “My office is packed with donations.”
Kerr isn’t shy about asking for help on behalf of her patients – or, for that matter, her coworkers.
When she sponsored an essay writing contest for employees during Einstein Week, as a member of the Employee Engagement Committee, she got Philadelphia’s poet laureate to judge the essays. Kerr got a donation of two luxury watches for the prize winners by reaching out to the chief executive of Movado, whom she contacted after reading that he was a supporter of cancer research.
“You just have to ask,” she repeats as a mantra, and cites her mother as her inspiration. “She’s always been someone who, if she sees a need in the community, she finds a way to fill it. She’d knock on doors and do a million little things that would add up to something big.”
While writing is still an outlet for her, Kerr is spending most of her free time now with her four grandsons, all under the age of 6. Her work time, as always, is devoted to making sure that cancer patients have everything they need for their journey to recovery. .
“I want people to be treated a certain way,” she says, and I feel I can bring that.”