Touched by Tragedy, She Hears Cancer Patients’ Distress
This is the fourth and final installment in a special series of Einstein Untold profiles in celebration of Women’s History Month. The featured women are innovators. They pursue unlikely dreams. They’re stand-outs with spirit and strength and stand-ins for all the women of Einstein Healthcare Network.
Donna Melograna spends her workdays prescreening patients in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery. As the lead medical assistant, she gathers information for the physicians, taking blood and vital signs, and evaluating patients’ emotional moods.
Some of the patients have cancer and are there for chemotherapy treatments. Some have come to learn the results of a suspicious diagnostic test, to find out whether this is the day their lives will divide into before and after: the time before cancer, and the time after.
“Most patients who come through are terrified, and now they’re alone because of COVID,” Melograna says. “I’m in my 50s, so people are very at ease telling me exactly how they’re feeling, whether it’s scared or depressed. I do a lot of emotional assessment, and I always let the doctor know their emotional status along with their physical complaints.”
What patients don’t know is that Melograna understands their emotional struggles all too well. For one thing, her husband, Dave, was diagnosed last year with lung cancer and is not responding well to treatment. And she also has another stark dividing line in her own life, a before and an after.
For years, Melograna was a mostly stay-at-home mother of nine children, a life she’d always wanted.
She helped in her husband’s auto repair business and took care of a patient with Alzheimer’s two nights a week, to help with the family finances. But mostly, her life was as a mother and homemaker, raising children, cultivating her garden, tending family pets.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know I wanted children and a family,” she says. “I was very blessed. I didn’t have any real roadblocks in my life.”
The Day Everything Changed
Until 2014, that is. Melograna’s 18-year-old son, Seamus, had been depressed. But he didn’t want to talk to a therapist and he didn’t take his antidepressant medication regularly. Seamus insisted he wasn’t having suicidal thoughts. However, in November of that year, he took his own life.
Melograna doesn’t remember much of what came afterwards. “It’s really a blur,” she says. “It’s like post-traumatic stress disorder when you have a child who dies from suicide.”
Living with Seamus’ suicide never gets easier, she says, “but people say, and it’s true, you learn how to put it somewhere and try to live your best life, because you have to.”
In time, Melograna resumed taking community college classes to become a medical assistant and was hired at Einstein Montgomery in 2017. The obvious question is why, given the tragedy she endured, she would choose to work in a setting in which people are sick, and fearful.
“My oldest son, Michael, he’s a smart guy, he said to me. ‘Mom, do you feel like it’s a little masochistic, your job choice? Like you’re punishing yourself?’” Melograna says. “I’m not, I’m truly not.”
A Nurturer, at Home and on the Job
“I guess I’m a nurturer,” she says. “It’s something I recognize in who I am and my comfort zone and what I think is important. It’s something I value and believe that’s why we’re here on earth – no greater reason that we’re here.”
Indeed, in September, she’s planning to take night and weekend classes to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing – so she can work in hospice care.
“Donna plays an incredibly important role in ensuring the smooth flow of patients operationally so that we are on time and efficient in our operations,” says Marc D. Schaller, Associate Vice President of Healthcare Services.
“Just as important, if not more, Donna’s calm and caring style is recognized throughout the department, and with patients, in the way she cares for people, which often times is crucial in the healing process for many of the oncology patients.”
Melograna says she knows better than most the support that patients need.
“It isn’t hard to look into someone’s eyes and give them a moment to listen,” she says. “Most people, when given the opportunity, will let you help them. Where I come from is – I know what it’s like to be on the other side.”