Editor's note: When Jay Masters first came to Mayo Clinic, he was a patient receiving a difficult diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. After completing his treatment and recovering from a number of complications, Jay decided he wanted to join the organization that had cared for him. Here he shares the story of how he came to work in Mayo Clinic's Department of Radiation Oncology and the opportunities he's been given to help others.
By Jay Masters
In November 2017, I came to Mayo Clinic as a patient after being referred by another physician from a different hospital. Coming through the front doors, I knew there was a good chance I had cancer. During that visit, my wife and I were flanked by my parents who had come from Indiana to spend the Thanksgiving holiday. They waited in the lobby as my wife and I went back for my appointment.
After an examination by a physician assistant, I met my surgeon, Dr. Eric Moore. He introduced himself and said, "I want you to know we cure stage 4 cancer here all the time." I thought: "That's great. If they cure stage 4 cancer, my chances of recovery will be fabulous."
Then came the words neither my wife nor I were expecting. Dr. Moore continued, "What you have is stage 4 cancer." My wife immediately grabbed my hand. I felt as though I was going to be sick. My mind was racing with these thoughts: "Cancer happens to other people, not me. Am I going to die? What should I do?"
My parents stayed with us in Minnesota for the next five months. They were here to ease the pressure on my wife and I, as well as to keep track of me through the long journey ahead.
"The level of care I experienced was absolutely exceptional."Jay Masters
Dr. Moore performed surgery eight days later to remove a tumor from my voice box. After six weeks of healing, I started six weeks of chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments. The level of care I experienced was absolutely exceptional. If there were any aspect of my life affected by my cancer, I was scheduled to see a professional to evaluate my situation and help me clear that hurdle.
Four weeks into my treatment, I hit the trifecta. I was hospitalized with viral, bacterial and fungal infections. On top of my infections, I also had a blood clot in my left lung and another that ran the length of my right leg. The radiation on my throat made it difficult to eat. I received a feeding tube. Through it all, I lost 35 pounds. My recovery was slow.
From the time of my surgery through recovery, I was out of work for six months. When I was ready to return to work, a member of my care team told me I was a miracle because most patients don't have all of the obstacles I had to overcome. I think it was at that moment I decided I wanted to come to work at Mayo Clinic to help other people dealing with difficult health challenges.
"I couldn't believe I was going to be working in the department where I spent most of my time as a patient. It had to be divine intervention."Jay Masters
After interviewing at Mayo, I was placed into a pool of candidates and was told there were 42 departments looking to fill vacancies from that pool. My resume landed on the desk of the supervisor of desk operations specialists for Radiation Oncology. I quit my job, took a pay cut and came to work for Mayo Clinic.
I couldn't believe I was going to be working in the department where I spent most of my time as a patient. It had to be divine intervention. I was trained to room patients, check them in at the desk and assist them with scheduling their radiation treatments.
During this time, our social worker called on me a few times to speak with patients who were struggling with their diagnosis and what lay ahead for them. After three months on the job, my supervisor called me to her office. She said she'd witnessed my interactions with patients and felt I had a lot to offer them above and beyond my role as a desk operations specialist. She said: "You have a perspective no one else has in our department. You relate to our patients because you have lived their experience."
She asked if I would be interested in a pilot program where I would work in the Radiation Oncology lobby of the Charlton Building in Rochester to interact with our patients and help them navigate what they are going through. I didn't need time to think about the opportunity. I said "Yes" on the spot.
"What I found most often is (patients) just needed to speak with someone who had been through what they are experiencing."Jay Masters
For six weeks, I served part time as a desk operations specialist and part time in the pilot program. As part of the pilot program, I interacted with patients and their caregivers. I explained I was part of a pilot program to help them navigate their radiation, Mayo Clinic, Rochester or anything else they needed. I reassured them we understand this is a difficult time, and I was there to make their experience as easy as possible.
The response was overwhelming. I was thanked multiple times a day. Many have hugged me and told me how much they appreciate what I did for them. A few told me I've given them hope. One gentleman asked where he could get a good hamburger in Rochester, and others asked where they could take their grandchildren who came to visit them from out of state. What I found most often is they just needed to speak with someone who had been through what they are experiencing. Some wanted to talk about their cancer, their symptoms and about their diagnosis. Others wanted to talk about anything but their cancer.
Since I am not a health care professional, I never gave patients medical advice. I directed them to seek answers from the appropriate member of their care team. I take great satisfaction in knowing I made a positive impact on our patients. Several have written emails thanking Mayo and our department for providing someone to help them through a very difficult time in their lives. My happiest moments have been when our patients finish their radiation therapy and ring the bell in our lobby. For many patients, this is very emotional. When I see patients hugging their family and friends, shedding tears and taking pictures at the bell, I often get emotional, too. It reminds me of the day I rang the bell.
My wife told me she feels the pilot program was therapeutic for our patients to speak with someone who has gone through cancer and come out on the other side. She also said she feels it was therapeutic for me. She is right. I'm not a health care professional, but I do make a positive difference in the lives of our patients each and every day. I am very proud of that. I'm grateful to my boss and Mayo Clinic for giving me that opportunity.