Moe O'Rourke ’80 takes a very personal approach to healing

Through many years of working as a nursing professor, Maureen O'Rourke '80 has learned that cancer patients can find healing in unlikely places. Thai restaurants, for example.

Maureen O'Rourke

A clinical professor of nursing at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Moe O’Rourke ’80, wearing both her Saint Joseph’s nursing pin and Boston Red Sox stickers on her lab coat, switched from an academic faculty position at the university because she missed patient contact.

One of her terminally ill patients, an immigrant from Thailand, had no family members living in the United States. Each day, O'Rourke would enter her hospital room only to hear that her patient was "feeling blue." The nurse decided to try a novel way to elicit a different response. She painted her face blue and arrived with a recording of the pop song, "Blue": "I am blue... I have a blue house with a blue window..." She invited her patient to sing along.

Over the subsequent weeks, O'Rourke visited the patient each day after finishing her teaching responsibilities. She learned of the woman's dream to open a restaurant and resolved to help her to realize this goal. They pored over menus, chose the entrees, and imagined the interior decor. They settled on a name, "The Blue Thai," and designed the logo. They even looked into applying for a small-business loan.

"It was never going to happen - we both knew it. But it happened," says O'Rourke, noting that at the time of her death, the woman felt the satisfaction of having achieved her dream. "Not in reality, no restaurant ever opened, but we came as close to it as possible."

O’Rourke’s ongoing treatment for lupus has given her a real appreciation for what her cancer patients have to go through.

O'Rourke, who prefers to be called by her nickname, Moe, adheres to a philosophy of nursing that she learned as an undergraduate at Saint Joseph's College. Now a nursing professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, she counsels her students to look beyond the patient's MRI results and blood counts to respond to the person's deepest needs.

"The art of nursing is still that gentle connecting with people's human spirit. I think that gets lost in all the technology," she says. "Sister Consuela (founder of the Saint Joseph's nursing program) taught us that anything is possible when a patient has hope."

O'Rourke has learned ?rst-hand about the transformative power of hope. She recalls several instances in her own life when circumstances seemed to conspire against her. By the second year into her doctoral program in nursing, for example, she was juggling her studies with caring for her 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. She was commuting 90 miles each way to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Then she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, lupus.

"I thought it was the end of the world ... I took a semester off because I thought I was dying," she says. "Then it occurred to me - what if I live to be 80 and I'm just sitting around doing nothing? So I went back."

She eventually completed the doctorate, along with groundbreaking research into the quality of life for prostate cancer patients. She began her interview-based study in the early 1990s at a point when a newly developed screening test, Prostate-Specific Antigen Test, helped identify thousands of new cases of the disease.

She feels gratified by her contributions to research as well as other scholarly work. She was one of the founding editors of the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing and associate editor of a second journal, Cancer Investigation, for seven years. She's given numerous addresses for national and international oncology nursing conferences. On the eve of one recent speech, the Trish Greene Memorial Quality of Life Lecture, her husband and children decorated their home and threw her a surprise party.

"(The Trish Greene award) is a very high honor in our society - that's a once-a-year memorial lecture, always on a quality-of-life topic," says Leonard Mafrica, publisher for the Oncology Nursing Society. He adds that O'Rourke has published numerous articles in the society's journals, contributed to several books, and helped guide the editorial direction of the society's clinical journal.

Despite these successes in academic pursuits, she discovered that her primary interest lay elsewhere. About five years ago, she held a tenure-track faculty position at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Though the job was the realization of a longtime goal, she made the difficult choice to give it up.

"I decided I didn't want to be in a tenured position. I gave it a lot of thought and ... I realized it wasn't really what I wanted because it took me away from the bedside," she says. "I really like to be at the bedside. It's why I went into nursing - to be with patients."

After switching to a part-time, clinical professor role, she shifted more attention to the needs of her own teen-aged children. She offers her house as the "haven" for teenagers to congregate after school. She supports her children's interests that range from playing basketball to volunteering for political campaigns. She also takes pride in the fact that they willingly contribute to cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry.

Her husband, a physician who specializes in rheumatology, has given her invaluable support in managing her own illness. Lupus is a chronic, incurable disease in which the body's immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks its own healthy tissue. She must receive infusions of drugs similar to those used in chemotherapy treatment for cancer. The aftereffects - fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms - help her to empathize with her cancer patients who must endure such interventions far more frequently.

Maureen O'Rourke

Moe O’Rourke was one of the founding editors of the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing and associate editor of a second journal, Cancer Investigation. She also conducted groundbreaking research on quality of life for pancreatic cancer patients.

"It has given me a real appreciation for what people have to go through," she says. "I'm always grateful when I'm feeling well. I'm not particularly grateful on the days I've got to get the chemo, but it's temporary, it passes."

She channels that empathy into her nursing practice by making sure she knows her patients in a very personal way. Her mentors and former Saint Joseph's College professors couldn't have predicted the course of O'Rourke's career, but they are certainly not surprised that she has achieved success in nursing.

"She did grasp what the essence of nursing is," says Sister Consuela White, who maintains a daily presence at Mercy Hospital in Portland. "That philosophy, that modus operandi, must have been evident to her. She must have identified very closely with it, because she captured it and she developed it further."

When O'Rourke looks back on her decades-long career, not only the high-profile moments at the podium stand out. She also recalls a blue-faced sing-along with a terminally ill patient. She remembers planning every detail of the Blue Thai until the restaurant became a reality in another woman's mind.

"The connection that I had with (my patient) was incredible. And it taught me a lot about hope, that you can be joyful even though it ends up difficult in the final moments," she says. "There are a lot of things that are worse then death - suffering is one and to have no joy in your life is another."

by Michele Pavitt

(Michele Pavitt is a freelance writer who lives in Brunswick, Maine. Photography by Lee Adams.)