Debra Ciokiewicz finds inspiration, fulfillment in treating cancer patients

May 12, 2019

People often ask Debra Ciokiewicz if she gets depressed, caring for people who have cancer.

But that’s not how she sees it. How can you not be inspired, she said, by people who face so much yet remain so strong?

“The best part about my job is the patients,” said Ciokiewicz, a nurse in the radiation and oncology department at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse. “I’m so privileged to meet these people.”

Ciokiewicz spends her days working with patients: accompanying them to radiation, treating their wounds and side effects, teaching them about their disease.

After three decades, Ciokiewicz has all but mastered the art of being a nurse, if that is possible.

But her path to nursing was an unusual one, filled with twists and turns and bumps in the road.

A La Crosse native, she started out as a hairdresser — a job that never seemed to fit her. She went back to school for nursing, then took a job working nights at Gundersen’s medical center.

It was intense, she said, like going through the wringer. The odd hours kept her from the big and small moments in her children’s lives, kept her from tucking them in or waking them up.

“I missed events, holidays, weekends,” she said. “I missed a lot of sleep, too.”

Years later, Ciokiewicz took her grandmother to Gundersen for cancer treatment. Watching the radiation and oncology team, she was in awe.

“They were such an amazing team, so impressive,” she said. “I said to one of the nurses, ‘Your department wouldn’t happen to have any openings, would you?’”

As luck would have it, they did. It was the break Ciokiewicz had been looking for.

The days and weeks tend to run together in a hospital.

Still, there are some patients Ciokiewicz says she will never forget. When diagnosed with cancer, they did not begin to die; they began to live:

The girl who had the prom night of her dreams, complete with a carriage ride and two dates.

The young man who married the love of his life in the hospital courtyard, and who died a few days later.

The woman who, driving home for the holidays, stopped at the hospital with shortness of breath. It turned out to be anaplastic thyroid cancer, a virtual death sentence for a woman who thought she was healthy.

“I remember that she was scared and a long way from home,” Ciokiewicz said. As the woman sat there, trying to steady herself, Ciokiewicz remembers one of the nurses kissing the top of her head, “like she was part of our family.”

“That always stuck with me,” she said.

Ciokiewicz clings to these memories because, as inspiring as some patients are, a majority do not get happy endings.

As a nurse, she said, checking the obituaries is just part of your day.

“A lot of the people I see are terminally ill,” she said. “It’s about allowing people to have a good quality of life,” however long that is.

Jared Kast, manager of Gundersen’s cancer center, said few people better exemplify what it means to be a nurse. Whether a patient hopes to be cured or just to spend their final days comfortably, Ciokiewicz is up to the task, he said.

“Deb is great at seeing if a patient or their condition changes,” he said. “She can see that, and she does whatever she can to help and support their needs.”

Being nominated for the Tribune’s outstanding nurse award is equal parts humbling and flattering, Ciokiewicz said — the perfect cap to a long career.

But the honor is not going to her head, not even a little bit. Every nurse deserves an award, she said, just for putting on scrubs.

“I’m not anybody special,” she said. “I’m just a nurse.”