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Nurse works with cancer patients to honor parents

Author: Reema Amin

Published: July 26, 2013

The motto at Cancer Treatment Centers of America is to treat each patient like your mother. Buffalo Grove resident Camille Bejar takes that literally.

Bejar, 28 and an only child, lost both parents to cancer in 2010 during her second year in nursing school.

Now a nurse at CTCA in Zion, she often wears hot pink scrubs — telling of her bubbly personality. Her wrist tattoo is easy to spot, with a “J” for her father, Jose, and an “M” for her mother, Marie, surrounding a cross.

Like those initials, Bejar says her cancer patients are “little pieces” of her parents.

It was about February 2008 when Bejar’s father got a colonoscopy after complaining of back pain.

She went with him that day, and to their dreadful surprise, the doctor found a 14-centimeter tumor in his kidneys. He was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney cancer.

Two months later, Bejar’s mother, an in-home nurse, noticed a walnut-sized lump in her breast. Bejar and her father urged Marie Bejar to get a mammogram, but she refused.

“I wish I could have been more of an advocate at that point,” Bejar said, explaining the importance of early prevention.

Her mother finally saw a doctor a month later, when she began to bleed from her breast. She had Stage III breast cancer.

Before her parents were diagnosed, Bejar had decided to pursue a nursing career but was rejected from Eastern Illinois University’s nursing program.

She now says “it’s fate” that she was turned away. Attending school at EIU’s Charleston campus three hours from home would have made it impossible to drive her parents to doctor visits and chemotherapy appointments. She instead applied and was accepted to Chamberlain College of Nursing in Downers Grove, where she started classes in fall of 2009.

School got “extremely stressful,” said Bejar, who studied six to eight hours a day. And since her mother could no longer work, Bejar also took over care for her paraplegic patient in his home.

But she balanced it all, said Sarah Vollmer, Bejar’s career adviser at Chamberlain. Vollmer called Bejar once a week to check in and was more concerned about her general well-being than her grades.

“If Camille said she could handle it, she handled it,” Vollmer said.

One evening, Bejar’s father said he was worried about how they’ll pay off student loans. Even through his illness, he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a plastic factory to help Bejar pay tuition, she said.

Bejar reassured him, saying everything would be fine once she graduated and found a job.

A month after that conversation, in February 2010, Jose Bejar died.

“My mom was saying how it’s sad that my dad won’t be able to see me walk in graduation. And ironically, she wasn’t able to see me walk either,” Bejar said.

Marie Bejar died 10 months after her husband, on Christmas. Bejar flew her body to the Philippines for her funeral.

Bejar credits her school work with keeping her busy — and keeping it together — during that time.

“Having to plan two funerals in one year was a little too much,” she said, also giving credit to her boyfriend and family in California. “(My professors) would give me a break because of the situation.” In 2012, Bejar was on the cusp of graduation and had one more rotation to complete that hit close to home: an oncology unit.

“I was very, very scared about that. One of my classmates actually offered to switch with me if I didn’t like it the first day,” she said.

But her fear quickly dissolved. She was surprised how comfortable she felt that first day with cancer patients and their families, likely because she’d been in their position.

“I really just fell in love with it,” she said,

Months later, Bejar’s boyfriend’s mother, also a nurse, told her about an opening in Zion. She was hired in May.

Her patients and their families often remind her of what her family went through, Bejar said.

“Everyday I go on to the floor, and you know, you kind of leave your own problems and worries behind,” she said.

“You gotta put a good face on for your patients because they are your main concern.”

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