A CANCER JOURNEY
Full circle experience for Denise Picard-Stencer
Published: February 2023
After dedicating 27 years of her career to The Ottawa Hospital, Denise Picard-Stencer was shocked when she found herself back at the hospital in 2019 — this time as a patient.
Denise started as an ICU nurse in 1990 at the General. After 13 years, she became an assistant manager in the ICU — a time she remembers vividly because of the SARS virus outbreak. That’s where she discovered her interest in management. She worked in various departments, including the Emergency Department, before making her way into the human resources field. In 2015, Denise took on a new opportunity at Hawkesbury and District Hospital, where she became the Vice-President of Patient Care and Chief Nurse.
Always healthy and active, with a love for cycling and golfing, Denise’s life took a turn in December 2018 when she got very sick. “I went through every test you can imagine trying to pinpoint what might be wrong. We were in the dark for so long, and my condition was deteriorating because the tests kept coming back inconclusive,” explains Denise. “I remember when I was diagnosed in July 2019 with multiple myeloma; it was almost a relief to finally know what was wrong, because now we could treat it.”
With that diagnosis, Denise found herself back at The Ottawa Hospital, but with a very different perspective — now, she was the patient. “I had 20 weeks of chemotherapy treatment, and then I had a stem cell transplant in February 2020.”
“Although the collection of my own stem cells was a gruelling two-day process where I was hooked up to machines and I had to remain still, in the end, the outcome was awesome,” recalls Denise. The day of her transplant is now known among her family and friends as Denise’s re-birthday. “I put on a shirt with sparkles on my transplant day because I was celebrating.”
Once the stem cell transplant was complete, Denise went home but had to return daily to the hospital for bloodwork and on-going follow-up. This was just as COVID-19 was hitting our community, which was concerning considering her immune system was still fragile.
Ten days after her release, Denise spiked a fever, and she was admitted to hospital for 10 days. But once the fever resolved, her road to recovery got a little smoother, and her stem cell transplant was deemed a success. Slowly, she started to gain weight back. “I was down to 88 pounds when I first left the hospital after the transplant — I had lost 30 pounds when I was sick. It took time to build up my strength again, but I’ve been good ever since. Today, I’m back to cycling and golfing,” explains Denise.
Being on the receiving end of care made Denise reflect on her years as a healthcare professional. “Throughout my career, whether I was interacting with patients as a nurse or in any of my management roles, I always put the patient at the centre, and as a hospital that was our focus — treating a patient like a loved one. So, when I became a patient, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Denise had wondered if all the work the hospital had committed to patient-focused care carried on after she left. “But when I became a patient, I was so impressed. From the technicians in radiology, the doctors, the nurses, and the housekeepers, that approach was there,” says Denise. “They made me feel like a person and not a patient — and these people didn’t know I had worked at TOH for all those years. That made me know I was in good hands.”
Witnessing the impact of research
One of her care team members was Dr. Arleigh McCurdy. She remembers an appointment with her hematologist not long after she was on the road to recovery. “I was so happy to have my life back, and I remember telling Dr. McCurdy, ‘It’s a miracle how far I’ve come!’ And she said to me ‘No — it’s research!’ and she’s right!”
“Years before, I participated in a cycling fundraiser to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital, and that’s when I made the connection to the impact of research. Little did I know back then, research would benefit me someday.”— Denise Picard-Stencer
Denise admits the impact of research didn’t hit her right away because she was so focused on getting her strength back. However, it was while reflecting on her care and looking back at some old photos that it hit her. “Years before, I participated in a cycling fundraiser to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital, and that’s when I made the connection to research. Little did I know back then, research would benefit me someday.”
In fact, Denise’s cancer story was a learning opportunity for the oncology team. She recalls Dr. McCurdy explaining how her case was so complex it was discussed each week on medical rounds. “The team was studying the latest research to see how they could best diagnose me because I didn’t have a straightforward case, and so there was another link to research.”
“Clinical trials are the reason why I’m here today”— Denise Picard-Stencer
Those constant efforts to seek out the best practices and participate in research projects to improve the quality of care for patients is not lost on Denise. “I know if, or when, I have a relapse, and the only option is a clinical trial, I will participate. Clinical trials are the reason why I’m here today — because other patients participated in these studies and the researchers and specialists devoted hours and hours to advancing research. It’s an aspect that the public doesn’t always see, but I knew about it, and I certainly saw that firsthand in my case.”
Today, Denise is enjoying retirement in Sherbrooke, where she now calls home — staying active, and taking every opportunity to spend time with her two grandchildren.
Listen to episode 77 of Pulse Podcast to hear Denise’s cancer journey in her own words.
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