Seventy-year-old Suse Skinner lights up the room with her smile, positivity and humor. She is an artist, a caregiver, and was recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a type of blood cancer.
From the moment she arrived at OHSU, “Suse was loved by all,” says Shelly Belknap, R.N. “Her pretty hats and bright blue eyes make any face mask a fashion statement, and we’ve gotten to know her well.”
This isn’t the first time Skinner’s battled cancer. In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Four years ago, the cancer metastasized to her lung and back. Since then, she’s been taking a daily chemotherapy pill and monitoring it with PET scans that have shown no evidence of disease.
Things changed in July when Skinner visited her oncologist and learned that she needed to be hospitalized. The doctor recommended OHSU for treatment. She says this cancer feels different—more serious. In August, Skinner was admitted to OHSU for her first induction chemotherapy that included six days of 24/7 treatment followed by six weeks of recovery.
“It was obvious the very first evening at OHSU that the staff listen with their hearts,” says Skinner. “The nurses were angels to me. The team knows just how to care for you, and you know you are in good hands.”
During her recovery, friends gave Skinner a book with lighthouses and a jacket with colorful sailing ships. With that prompt and inspired by the care she’s receiving at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, she wrote a song to express her thanks. In her song, “The Good Ship OHSU,” Skinner spreads the love widely: to the many nurses involved, to her physicians Uma Borate, M.D., and Rachel Cook, M.D., to the people who keep her room comfortable and clean.
A performance to remember
On a bright December afternoon, Suse’s family, care team and those touched by her story from across OHSU, gathered in a community room on the 14th floor to watch her perform her song. A large crowd filled the space and spilled out the door and down the hallway.
“It’s humbling to hear your words and how our lives intersect,” Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute shared after the performance. “Thank you.”
“Suse’s sense of humor and her family’s wonderful support have really kept her going,” says Borate. “I’m privileged to be part of her care team.”
A lifetime of healing and humor
Healthcare has always been a part of Skinner’s life. Growing up, her mother was a nurse and Skinner has worked as a home health aide for the last 20 years.
Thirty-five years ago, Skinner performed her first family-friendly singing telegram. At her mother’s suggestion, Skinner wore the cape from her nurse uniform and it was an instant hit. Soon after, a friend embellished the cape with hearts and piping.
Skinner created the persona of Suzani, a heart-themed clown nurse. When performing, she carries a medical bag with props and conducts “medical examinations” with fun, visual jokes. She’s appeared at parties and the Rose Festival parade, and says that people have been laughing at the same light-hearted jokes for more than 30 years.
It’s a family here
Skinner’s children—Katie and Ben—are integral to her care. “There’s so much to manage from appointments and care to treatments and medicine,” says Katie Skinner, who works in project management. “Ben and I approach mom’s care like a project to ensure she gets everything she needs and that everything gets done.”
“It’s wonderful here at OHSU, says Skinner. “Everyone knows who I am—from the nurses and the CNAs to the food service team and the housekeeping staff—and they treat me with integrity. It’s a family here.”
“Suse has a way of exuding love and hope regardless of what she is going through,” says Belknap. “We hope that we can provide that in return for our patients as well.”