Judy McDonough lives by faith.
The oncology-certified registered nurse has worked for dozens of years alongside patients fighting for their lives. A Green Ridge resident, McDonough has dried tears, watched miracles happen, and taken care of patients and their families. In an environment that from the outside seems somber and depressing, McDonough said Dr. Martin Hyzinski’s Scranton office is filled with hope. There are sad moments, but she’s seen too much good to not believe in the strength, courage and resilience of the human spirit. And while she loves the bonds she shares with her patients there, the friendships among patients are what take her breath away.
“Some days, it’s someone’s first day of (chemotherapy) and they’re in the room, just sobbing and, every time, someone else will get up and walk over to them and hold their hand and tell them they’re going to be OK,” McDonough said on a recent night in the office. “It can be sad and there’s tears, but every day I am surrounded by that love and that compassion. Everyone takes care of each other here.”
McDonough always knew she wanted to be a nurse. Its flexible hours allowed her to be home with her three daughters for dinner and homework but, more so, she wanted to make a difference. Throughout her clinical rotations, helping people facing cancer as an oncology nurse was the most rewarding. Though she began her career in a hospital intensive care unit, an oncology nurse job came up in an outpatient setting at a private practice in Kingston, where she learned the ins and outs of the field.
Around the same time the practice’s doctor died of leukemia, McDonough’s father-in-law was referred to Hyzinski. The office happened to be looking for an oncology nurse, and she knew it was meant to be.
“All of the things that happened, even though they weren’t all happy things, led me where I am today,” she said. “I believe in fate, and I believe that we are put exactly where we’re supposed to be at exactly when we’re supposed to be there.”
McDonough’s work fulfills her, especially when she meets new patients. When they come in to receive their results, Hyzinski, McDonough and the patient discuss the treatment plan. McDonough then puts the full process in motion, including checking coverage with insurance companies, calculating doses and more. While the plan is to get the patient better, it’s still a rough road, and McDonough she remains a pillar of strength for that person.
“I go in there and I’m there to hold their hand, look at them and say, ‘This stinks, it’s scary, but you’re going to be OK. We’re going to you through this and be right by your side,’” she said.
Chemotherapy is not like it used to be, McDonough said, and many patients’ ideas of it are worse than it actually is. Hundreds of cancers and hundreds of types of chemo drugs exist (some are even oral medications), and McDonough makes sure the doses and medications all work correctly while maintaining the patient’s quality of life. Even if it takes a dozen times to find the right combination, the patient’s comfort and happiness mean everything to McDonough.
“You don’t want anyone to suffer or think they need to feel bad,” she said. “If something is making them uncomfortable, I always tell them (that) there’s something else we can do. They have options.”
Many times, McDonough’s kindness and care extend beyond the doctor’s office. She forms relationships with patients and their families since they share stories about their lives while spending weeks or months together for several hours per day, she said. A patient in her 80s who needed to be hospitalized cried to McDonough that the dog she loved and newly adopted would be taken away. McDonough vowed to care for the dog while she was in the hospital. and continued to look after the dog if the woman couldn’t. When the woman died, McDonough took the dog in, giving now 13-year-old Boo a happy, loving home with her other dog, Milo, and three cats, Kiara, Olliver and Theo. The dog serves as a daily reminder of a beloved patient.
“(Boo) was so happy and gave her so much comfort. It was so beautiful to see,” McDonough said. “I was meant to be her nurse, and Boo was meant to have this second life. It’s more than just a job. This is my life, and (my patients) are my life.”
Her own family — including her parents, Emma and Reynold Morgan — means just as much, and she leans on her husband, Billy (her “support system”), and her daughters, Dr. Lauren McLane, Dr. Chelsea Mursch and Alyssa Mursch. They are her best friends, sounding boards and biggest inspirations, she said, as one daughter holds a doctorate in neuroscience, one is a veterinarian, and the youngest is halfway through law school. She also loves when she has the chance to visit her granddaughter, Riley.
Outside of work, McDonough craves the outdoors and is a runner as well as a hiker. She and her husband have hiked to the highest point in 49 states and started to enter marathons in different states. They’re also huge Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
In the office, McDonough loves the staff she works with and Hyzinski, since they all work toward making it as comforting for the patient as possible. Science is always finding new and innovative medications, and the landscape for treating cancer is better than it was even 10 years ago. In the years she’s worked, she’s definitely had hard days and said many goodbyes, but the good days filled with faith and compassion are what she looks to.
“You have to have that hope,” she said. “None of us really know what’s going to happen, so you have to keep that hope alive. … I love what I do, and I’m blessed that this is what I am doing.”
Meet Judy McDonough
- At home: The daughter of Emma and Reynold Morgan, she lives in the Green Ridge section of Scranton with her husband, Billy; their dogs, Boo and Milo; and cats, Kiara, Olliver and Theo. They have three daughters, Dr. Lauren McLane, Dr. Chelsea Mursch and Alyssa Mursch; a son-in-law, Tom McLane; and a granddaughter, Riley McLane.
- At work: Oncology-certified registered nurse working for Dr. Martin Hyzinski
- Inspiration: The strength of her patients and their positive attitudes
- Aspiration: To treat every person the way that she would like to be treated
- Diversions: Family time, running, hiking and traveling
- Aversions: Meanness and lying
- Quote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Phillipians 4:13
Gia Mazur is an award-winning staff writer and beauty obsessive who joined The Times-Tribune’s Lifestyles department in 2015. She’s a product enthusiast who can’t live without an eyelash curler. A proud Virgo, Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution Lipstick in Pillow Talk is her go-to. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9127; @gmazurTT