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The Courage of a Caregiver

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2019, Mary Worsham, RN, BSN, CCRN, Director of the Critical Care Unit at Unity Health – White County Medical Center, tapped into her rich reservoir of faith, optimism and strength. Little did she realize how much she would be thankful for her medical center’s connection to one of the country’s most prestigious medical systems.

Worsham did not always want to be a nurse. Growing up, she envisioned herself one day working as a lawyer. However, Worsham’s course shifted thanks to her mother, who encouraged her to consider a career in nursing. Heeding her mother’s advice, Worsham took a job as a nursing assistant after her graduation from high school and was quickly drawn to the healthcare field and the opportunity to help others.

A Profound Diagnosis

In the late spring and early summer of 2019, Worsham’s life took a turn that would call the dedicated caregiver to experience life as a patient. It was May, and Worsham was avidly participating in WW (Weight Watchers). She felt inspired to see 10 pounds melt away by the time June rolled around, but she became concerned when she noticed an unusual loss of appetite, back pain, stomach pain and ongoing rapid weight loss that did not seem congruent with her diet. “I could not get comfortable no matter how I sat, and by July I noticed that my urine was turning a dark color,” Worsham said. “I knew something was wrong.”

Taking a proactive approach, Worsham scheduled an appointment with Daniel Pace, M.D. Primary Care Provider at Unity Health – Searcy Medical Center. “I jokingly told him that I thought my symptoms pointed to the presence of pancreatic cancer,” Worsham said. “But Dr. Pace ordered labs that Friday, and they came back abnormal.”

The following Tuesday, Worsham underwent a computed tomography (CT) scan of her abdomen in the morning. By 3 p.m. that afternoon, she was in the office of a gastroenterologist. “Dr. Pace wanted me to go see the doctor to investigate what my scans revealed, and I left work thinking I had an issue with my gallbladder,” Worsham said. “But the GI doctor made multiple comments that he was concerned with the findings of my CT scan. He was suspicious that something needed immediate attention, which worried me.”

Worsham’s next step was to visit a facility in Little Rock, where she underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of her abdomen and an ultrasound of her gallbladder. An emergency room doctor then determined that she needed to be admitted for more screenings. Worsham underwent an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) test to examine her bowel duct and an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) test with ultrasound to examine her esophagus, stomach and a portion of the duodenum, a section of the small intestine.

“I was thinking this would be as I suspected,” Worsham said. “I was in shock, and I was scared. The doctors found a tumor that would need to be biopsied.”

In spite of her fear, Worsham was determined to travel to Atlanta with her husband and mother to attend her daughter’s surprise engagement. “The doctor told me to go home, and he would call me with the results,” Worsham said. “While my family and I were on our way to Atlanta, the doctor called me with the results. I had stage III pancreatic adenocarcinoma. It was a very solemn trip the rest of the way, but I was trying to make the best of it for my 81-year-old mom.”

Giving Back in the Midst of Uncertainty

While undergoing treatment for adenocarcinoma pancreatic cancer, Mary Worsham, RN, BSN, CCRN, Director of the Critical Care Unit at Unity Health – White County medical Center, donated blood and agreed to participate in research. “I have always endeavored to treat patients the way I would want to be treated,” Worsham said.

A Portrait of Purpose and Faith

On August 12, 2019, Worsham said, “I was connected with Dr. Koch at Unity, who has provided me with excellent care.” Ryan Koch, D.O., Hematologist and Oncologist at Unity Health, administered chemotherapy for five hours at a time every two weeks from August 2019 through December 2019. However, Worsham’s tumor did not shrink in size. Refusing to give up, Worsham began researching her surgical options and traveled back to Atlanta, where her daughter, Alexis Worsham, is a nurse at Emory University Hospital. “I was still receiving care from Dr. Koch, as well, but I just wanted to make sure I covered all my bases,” Worsham said. “The doctors in Atlanta told me that I was not a candidate for surgery. But Dr. Koch reached out to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion.”

"Unity Health has rallied around me throughout this process. Everyone has encouraged and supported me in so many ways. The people here are amazing from top to bottom" Worsham said.

A Special Connection: Unity Health as part of the Mayo Clinic Care Network

The Mayo Clinic Care Network is a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and independent healthcare organizations, including Unity Health. Through this network, Unity Health providers access the knowledge and expertise of Mayo Clinic specialists. In Worsham’s case, that connection made a surgery others considered “impossible,” possible.

On May 21, 2020, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic performed the Whipple procedure on Worsham to remove the head of her pancreas, the duodenum and the gallbladder. The procedure seemed successful, as a follow-up appointment on July 26, 2020 revealed cancer-free margins. Since that time, a scan performed on September 22, 2020 indicated the presence of newly suspicious tissue in Worsham’s liver.

“I was taken aback because of everything I have through already. I did not think I would have a negative scan,” Worsham said. “But why not me? God has led me through this entire process, and everything has worked into place. We have wonderful physicians here at Unity Health. I have to trust the process.”