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Songwriting aids palliative care nurse in cancer fight

Nov. 15, 2018, 11:04 AM

Beyond the usual care she provides her patients in the Palliative Care Unit, Megan Palmer, RN, also connects with them through her music. Photo by Susan Urmy.

by Jill Clendening

Megan Palmer, RN, a nurse in the Palliative Care Unit (PCU) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, wears many hats, but she never imagined writing a song about a perfect Stetson cowboy hat would hold such powerful meaning in her life.

Five years ago, Palmer moved to Nashville to both pursue her dream as a fiddle player/singer/songwriter and to continue her career as a nurse. She hoped for a job in palliative care, a field she’d enjoyed during past assignments as a travel nurse. Palliative care focuses on improving quality of life and providing relief from the symptoms of illness, often as individuals approach the end of life. Palmer knew it was just the type of work she needed after working in other clinical areas where she often felt disconnected from patients.

When she spotted an acoustic guitar sitting ready to play beside the nurses’ station when she came for her job interview at VUMC, she felt divinely guided to be there.

“I told them during my interview that sometimes I can be here to work full time, but sometimes I might be gone for a couple of weeks because I do these small tours with my own music or with other artists,” said Palmer. “They were absolutely cool with that, and I knew this was exactly where I should be.”

Palmer came on board at VUMC as a “PRN” registered nurse, meaning she works on an as-needed basis. The flexible schedule worked perfectly and she loved her job, which occasionally included taking down that guitar to play for patients. She’d been able to finish her fifth album, recorded in Nashville, and was gearing up for the record release and a summer tour when she received news that put everything on pause.

“I was coming in to work a night shift when I got a phone call,” she remembered. “I had just had a mammogram and then an ultrasound. Then, I had a biopsy. I knew something was up, but I kept thinking, ‘Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s nothing.’ I saw it was a Vanderbilt number. Even then, I thought, ‘Maybe they’re calling me to tell me to report to a different floor.’ It wasn’t that. I had cancer.

“I just went in and worked my shift. I didn’t tell anyone. I said to myself, ‘Go take care of your patients today.’ What else was I going to do? Go home and cry?”

Soon, on a Nashville stage, she told her friends and fans that she’d be gone for a while.

“I had stage II breast cancer in one breast,” she said. “There was the main tumor site and a secondary tumor they found in surgery. It hadn’t spread into my lymph nodes, but it was definitely growing legs and getting ready to jump.”

Surgical oncologist Mary Hooks, MD, performed a mastectomy on July 8, 2016, one day after Palmer’s 40th birthday. That was followed by many weeks of healing before she began 12 weeks of chemotherapy under the care of VUMC oncologist Vandana Abramson, MD.

“After the first chemo treatment, as predicted, all my hair fell out — and I had long hair,” she laughed. “I had a lot of emotion. Until you lose your hair, you don’t realize just how much your hair defines you. I had to go up to people and say, ‘Hi, remember me?’ They would have such extreme reactions to seeing me with no hair.”

As she came to terms with being bald, Palmer experimented with different looks for venturing out in public.

“I had all these Styrofoam heads lined up on my kitchen table,” she said. “I had wigs and hats and scarves — things people had given me or I had bought. I started playing dress up with myself. You know, ‘I have this look, and I have this look, and I have this look!’ I’d forgotten the heads were there, and I had friends coming over. They were about to walk in the door, and I said, ‘Oh, I should warn you. My kitchen table is kinda a scene right now. Don’t be weirded out!’”

After her visitors left and she sat staring at the Styrofoam heads, a song came to Palmer. Within 20 minutes she had “Stetson” written.

“Everyone has their fancy hats, especially here in Nashville,” she said. “I thought if I had the perfect one, it would be my magic hat. It would keep me in my body, perhaps more metaphysically than physically. I know that nothing’s going to keep me on this earth. Nothing will, but in that moment, I just wanted that perfect Stetson.”

“Stetson” was released on Blue Rose Music in September, coinciding with the release of a music video for the song. Interspersed throughout the video are stark, black-and-white photos taken by Nashville photographer Stacie Huckeba, one of Palmer’s good friends. The photos unflinchingly show points in time throughout her cancer journey, from being wheeled to surgery to receiving a chemotherapy infusion to revealing her post-surgical scar.

When the video was complete, Palmer shared it with her VUMC care team.

“Megan told me about this project during her treatment, and I was very impressed that she was able and willing to reach out to others during such a physically and emotionally draining personal experience,” said Hooks.

“I was also very touched and honored for her gratitude and appreciation for the services that were provided to her at our center.

“Throughout life’s tragedies it is essential to maintain at least a small grip on the things in life that are most meaningful, which means something different for each person. It usually includes family, friends, vocation and special talents such as Megan’s gift for writing and performing outstanding music. There is no doubt that this gift and her commitment to it was helpful to Megan in navigating this journey.”

“Megan is one of my favorite patients,” said Kye Higdon, MD, the VUMC plastic surgeon who performed Palmer’s reconstructive surgery. “She is so talented and has really used her creativity to make such an amazing message through song. Her song ‘Stetson’ is an impressive tribute to the special woman that Megan is. I’m so grateful to have been a part of battling with her to beat breast cancer and her journey through restoration.”

Today, Palmer sports a short, pixie hair cut that perfectly sets off her beaming smile about a positive end to her cancer recovery journey. But she isn’t quite done yet.

Palmer has partnered with Gilda’s Club of Middle Tennessee to raise money and awareness for individuals and their families experiencing cancer.

All proceeds from the purchase of a special Megan Palmer T-shirt (a free download of “Stetson” is included) go directly to Gilda’s Club: http://bit.ly/stetson-t-shirt.

“It’s expensive to get cancer,” Palmer said. “I was fortunate because I had a job that was OK with me being off for a while, and I don’t have any children. My music friends basically paid my bills for nine months. That’s a unique situation, and there are a lot of women who don’t have any of that. I wanted to give something back to a charity I believe in so other women could feel supported as well.”

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