When death is near for one of Maria Rodriguez’s patients, she speaks to them.

The oncology nurse/interpreter at Temple University Hospital wants to help. She tells them that people love them and care for them. She tells them to go in peace.

Rodriguez, 60, was recently named a runner-up for Cure magazine’s 2020 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.

We spoke to her about her work and her dedication to it.

Why did you become a nurse?

I grew up in Puerto Rico, and when my parents moved to New York City, I stayed and became my grandmother’s caregiver. She was asthmatic. I learned that when she couldn’t breathe, I should call someone or ask for help. I was very young.

Much later, after my parents and grandmother had moved to Philadelphia, I became her caregiver again. I knew English, so I went with her to appointments. I was always with her, interpreting for her. One night, she asked me to rub her back with ointment. She said the smell made her feel better. As I was massaging her, she said, “your hands have such healing powers. I feel like I’m getting better.” She told me, “You should always give that gift to other people.”

I married young, and my husband and I had a furniture business for 20 years. But I always told my husband, “I want to help people.” When I turned 40, I said, “I’m going to nursing school.”

I started as a trauma nurse at Jefferson Hospital. I saw every trauma you can see. After three years, it takes a toll on you, physically and mentally. I became an infection-control nurse, but that wasn’t my thing. So I changed over to the cancer center at Jefferson. After I left Jefferson, I saw an ad for an oncology nurse navigator at Temple. We have such a large Hispanic community in this section of the city. I thought, “This is where I’m going to make my impact.” During orientation, I learned about Spanish interpreting services. I said, “Wow. That’s what I want to do.”

What are the special challenges of being an oncology nurse and how do you overcome them?

Just being with patients from Day 1 and following them through their care, seeing them going through surgery, chemo, radiation, you get to know them. You get to be so close to them and their family members. You try to detach from it. But as a feeling human being, it’s very hard to do that. Taking care of them became my goal.

Although many with cancer get well and survive, for some, eventually, the drugs no longer work. Originally, I was the GI nurse for the cancer team at Jefferson. I saw young parents with colon cancer. It was devastating. They had young children. You would have to sit with them and talk to them about making decisions. “Do you have someone to leave your children with, someone they’ll be safe with, when you pass?” They were difficult conversations. It was heartbreaking.

Older parents go through something different. “I won’t be around when my granddaughter gets married.” “I won’t be there for them to enjoy my stories.” I need the strength to help them deal with these difficult times.

Sometimes you’re with a patient six months, nine months, two years. And you may see them getting sicker and sicker. And you know they are suffering. Sometimes you see an end to their life. It’s very sad, but as a nurse, I have to realize that life does come to an end. And I have to be strong enough to be here for that other person who needs me.

There are also happy times. We get to witness, for example, the ringing of the bell when a patient finishes their treatment journey. The nursing staff all clap their hands as the patient rings the bell as a symbol of accomplishment and relief. We give them a ribbon with their name on it and add it to the wall of warriors. Some of the patients, when they come back to see their doctor, come to the infusion center to see their ribbon on the wall. They smile with pride and say, “Here is my ribbon.”

What about your dual role as interpreter for patients?

I have a smile on my face right now because, to me, it’s not a job. I can help this person through what they don’t understand. I’m their lifeline to another language.

Often, when I first see them, they are sitting there and their faces are blank. When the doctor says, “This is Maria and she’s going to interpret,” and then I say, “Hola, como estas,” their facial expression changes. It’s a different atmosphere. I can see them thinking, “I have someone who understands me.”

When I explain things in their language, it’s great to see that they are understanding the journey they are going to start and the process they have to go through. I thank my lucky stars that I was gifted with knowing two languages and being able to help my people understand and not be afraid of asking.

Cure magazine noted that you look beyond patients' diagnoses and soothe the spirit in addition to treating the illness.

As a Hispanic female, I know the Hispanic people are very spiritual. You connect to them through touch. And they are very traditional. So whatever their traditional way is, that is how we’re going to fight the cancer.

As I meet my patients and talk to them, I can see the pain that a lot of them are in. I can see the emotional stress they’re under. I can see that they’re afraid. For some of them, the first question they ask is, “How long do you think it’s going to be before I die?”

You want to bring light to their day and peace to their heart. You also want them to fight. You want to say, “You have it in you; you can fight.” Sometimes, before COVID-19, when family members were allowed in, I would say, “Look at this person with you. This person is counting on you to fight and is going to help you fight. They are not giving up on you.”

But when they speak about death, I can almost touch the spiritual part of them and feel their anxiety and soothe it. I tell them they cannot truly live when they are thinking about dying. Sometimes, that opens another part of themselves to share. We talk not at the level of nurse and patient, but of two human beings talking about their feelings. It becomes a spiritual talk. That’s how I touch their spirit. I see where they’re at, and I use that to reach more into what they want to talk about. And they open up.

What is it like to lose one of your patients?

Every patient I’ve connected with, they all have an impact. Every single patient has something that I can say I admire. Maybe their strength, their resilience, their pride. Every day, I learn something new from each and every one of them.

When I see I’m losing a patient, I speak to them a lot. Often, I know by the way they’re acting — you can almost see by the questions they ask — that death is close. I hold hands with them. I try to somehow make them feel that they’re still here. I always tell them that there’s something stronger than this, after this. I tell them the people who love them will be OK. “And when you go, go in peace.”

Let’s say a mother comes with her daughter. I talk to the daughter and I say, “You have to be strong because it’s coming, it’s close. Talk to your brothers and sisters. Talk to your aunts and uncles. This is the time for you to be united so her final moments or hours or days will be peaceful.”

I can tell you about the first patient that passed on me. But you know what? I want to take that pain and that connectedness and use it to help someone else. That’s how I make it every day.