Voices of the NIH Community

“Our patients are heroes”

Nurses Mary Fleury, Eileen Dimond and Christine Bryla talk about working together for 30 years treating cancer and HIV/AIDS patients enrolled in clinical trials at NIH.


Eileen Dimond: When I started nursing in 1985, AIDS and HIV was just coming to light, really. We had no idea what the disease really was; we had no idea how to fully manage it. We had no idea how much we needed to protect ourselves or not from the disease and thus we were gowning, gloving, masking, booties, covered head to toe when we would walk into a patient’s room. Ebola recently has brought a lot of memories back to what that was like, but I remember walking down the hall with medication. I would have a paper cup with these white pills in it and is often the case with us, right, it’s got numbers and letters on it, so it was BWA blah, blah, blah and I didn’t know what it was and I was giving it to HIV patients.

And lo and behold, over time we came to learn it was AZT and it was one of the key drugs in treating AIDS and the patients who were getting it were doing so much better, and just that experience of that, I remember so vividly. Walking into these young men’s rooms, gowned, gloved, masked; it was so difficult for them. And they were so courageous and it made a huge difference and it was great to be part of that.

Christine Bryla: Remember we also dealt with a lot of patients who were undergoing bone marrow transplantation. And I remember a sad story; it was New Year’s Eve and I was a very new and young nurse and I was supposed to work until the end of the shift. And I had a young patient who was super-sick, and he was actively dying and his whole family was there. I mean, there must have been 15 people in the room. Meanwhile my fiancé was waiting downstairs for me to come out and celebrate New Year’s Eve, but I couldn’t go in that moment because there was so much going on. 

And this young man wanted to be baptized before he died; and it was New Year’s Eve and there was not very many people around, ancillary staff. But I remember making some phone calls and getting in touch with the chaplain, who said to me over the phone, you can go ahead and baptize him and just told me basically what to do. And so I walked into the room, and of course I was a little nervous, but I thought, this is what I have to do. And so I did, it was very simple, the family was relieved. There was a sense of peace at that moment; it was amazing. The patient did die that night and then I went downstairs and got in the car and there was my fiancé’s, Happy New Year and I thought, this is life, this is what taking care of an oncology patient is about.

Eileen Dimond: Our patients are heroes. They’re heroes. I’ve always felt that way. They are so brave and strong and committed and without them, we would never advance the science of oncology and the medicine of how we take care of them.

Mary Fleury: Right. Yeah, often patients will say that if it doesn’t help me, at least I’m helping somebody else. 

This page last reviewed on February 27, 2023