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Personal Best / A CLOSE-UP LOOK AT PEOPLE WHO MATTER : Nurse Never Runs Out of Patience

September 02, 1999|DIANE WEDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Donna Ashmore-Nuss has a problem setting limits. Not with her kids, who are already grown. The oncology nurse simply can't say "no" when it comes to sharing what she refers to as her gift--educating her patients and the public about cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

Want to know what to expect during chemotherapy treatments? Join Ashmore-Nuss' biweekly "I Can Cope" sessions. Need to share your feelings with others who have lost loved ones to cancer? Sit in on her bereavement group. Maybe you're a cancer patient craving a family-style gathering at holiday time. Bring a dish to her annual potluck dinner in December.

"I feel driven, I get carried away," Ashmore-Nuss said recently. "But I'd rather do that than do nothing at all."

Between the 50 hours a week she puts in at her paying job as an oncology nurse at UCLA/Santa Clarita Valley Cancer Center and the four days a month she works as a surgical nurse at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, it's a miracle she has any time left for the organizing, fund-raising, counseling and teaching she says is the most pleasurable part of her life.

"I consider the nursing jobs to be my part-time work," the 47-year-old Valencia resident joked. "The volunteer work makes me feel alive. I get tired sometimes, but I love what I'm doing."

Perhaps that's why Ashmore-Nuss rushed to the uninhabitable cancer center the day after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and administered chemotherapy treatments from the back of her van. Her compassion also led her in 1990 to create a support group for the grieving spouses of 12 of her patients who had died of cancer.

"She let us cry and vent and helped us see that we were all going through the same thing," said Marlee Andrews-Grooms, a member of the group whose participants still stay in touch nine years later. "She also brought humor back into our lives. We love her dearly."

Ashmore-Nuss' ability to relate so easily to those she treats stems in part from her own struggle with a serious illness. In 1978, at the age of 26, she was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that affects joints, kidneys and the nervous system.

"I've been hospitalized, been in a wheelchair, on crutches and undergone chemotherapy, so I can relate," she said. "You can sit down and not live, or choose to live. I like the living part. A lot."

Dr. Evelyn Mendoza, a Santa Clarita Valley medical oncologist with whom Ashmore-Nuss has worked closely for several years, said she appreciates her colleague's philosophy.

"Donna's genuinely concerned with the patients," she said. "She puts humor into the care and treatment of a serious illness, even when she's limping herself."

Ashmore-Nuss was named the 1999 Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Nurse of the Year for Acute Rehabilitation and was a 1997 recipient of the American Cancer Society's Lane W. Adams Quality of Life Award. She helped launch the Santa Clarita Valley chapter of the Cancer Society, on whose board she has served for four years.

She recently spearheaded the cancer organization's Relay for Life fund-raiser at Canyon High School in Canyon Country, where participants raised more than $85,000 during a 24-hour walkathon.

"If everyone volunteered just a little--not nuts like me--we'd get so far," Ashmore-Nuss said. "We can change people's lives."

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338. Or e-mail them to valley.news@latimes.com

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