For a caring nurse, a resounding `Thanks'

A survivor of thyroid cancer is honored with service award

October 02, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Life is full of surprises, and Karen Ulmer got a well-deserved one this week when about 30 family members and colleagues ambushed her at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

There were hugs. There were flowers. There was - oh, no! - Ulmer's 5-year-old son, Joshua, prematurely poking his finger into a sheet cake decorated with pink-icing script that read "Congratulations Karen."

The cause for celebration was hospital director Larry Merlis' announcement that Ulmer is one of 15 nurses nationwide who've been selected for outstanding service awards by apparel manufacturer Cherokee Uniforms.

"I'm very touched and honored," said Ulmer, who had that familiar, glazed-eye look of somebody whose doorbell had just been rung by the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol.

Unfortunately, Karen Ulmer couldn't eat a piece of her own cake.

She was recognized by the company for her devotion to head and neck cancer patients. It is an empathy that comes, in part, from first-hand experience: Ulmer, 36, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 17 years ago and has undergone more than a dozen operations and surgical procedures. She sometimes attends the same cancer-survivor support groups as her patients.

"Anyone who has read or heard her story knows she's an inspiration," said KerriAnn Schenck, nursing supervisor for the fifth-floor surgical in-patient unit where Ulmer works.

Her vocal chords have been damaged by radiation treatments. She has had several tracheostomies done on her throat, inserting tubes to relieve breathing problems. She can nibble some solid food, but mostly ingests fluids through a tube inserted in her stomach.

"I took care of her when she had her first surgery and we've been friends ever since," said nurse auditor Kathy Grutkowski. "I've never heard her say `Why me?'"

Ulmer certainly has reason to wonder why. She never drank or smoked, and her cancer discovery was, well, a complete surprise: It turned up during a routine physical she was required to take upon entering the nursing program at Towson University.

Karen Peters had just returned home from a ski trip with then-boyfriend Frank Ulmer when her parents delivered the bad news.

"The next couple of weeks I just blindly went where my doctors told me to go," she recalls.

One of the first places she was sent was the operating room. The tumor had wrapped itself around her vocal chords, like ivy on a fence post. The surgery to remove the growth lasted nearly 17 hours. That was later followed by steroid treatments that made her face swell, an 11-hour-long surgery, and those radiation treatments that made her so "hot" no one else was allowed in her hospital room for days on end.

Some college friends couldn't handle the ordeal and drifted away. But her boyfriend (whom Ulmer's mother called "her best medicine") held his ground and two years later they were married.

"You grow up a lot," says Frank Ulmer, who today owns a small construction company. "We've got a depth of relationship probably a lot of people will never experience."

Karen Ulmer not only graduated from nursing school on time, she graduated magna cum laude. "She kept that as her focus," notes her husband. "She gave herself a goal." She has been at Greater Baltimore Medical Center for 14 years, logging the same 12-hour shifts as her cancer-free coworkers.

Befitting the nursing profession's no-frills reputation, each Cherokee Award recipient gets an all-expenses-paid trip to a medical conference, plus $1,000 worth of work clothing and footwear.

So far, Ulmer's personal survival story has a happy ending. She has a healthy marriage, a job she loves, and seems to be forever chasing after two bursting-with-energy boys: Joshua and 2-year-old Garrett.

The four "F's" have served her well: faith, family, friends, and Frank. The only concessions made to illness nowadays involve diet and, of course, her voice. Ulmer has to cover the tracheostomy opening in her throat to speak, much like a musician must finger the holes on a flute to sound notes. Since she can't yell, her sons have learned to snap to attention when she claps her hands.

Garrett and Joshua are too young to comprehend cancer, but they've been told all anybody really needs to know about their mother's condition.

"Mommy's special and Mommy has tubes," says Frank Ulmer. "That's about it."

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