I met Kristin during my first shift in an urban E.R. in Portland 3 years ago. I was working in Fast Track as a physician assistant, and she was the assigned nurse for the day. She was strong and outspoken and said within minutes of meeting me, "I'm probably going to offend you today. I apologize in advance, okay?"

I nodded.

"Okay," she said, and we got to work.

We worked well together, but other than work, we had little else in common. She was tough, outspoken, tattooed and pierced—and I was none of those things. Earlier in her life she had battled an addiction, and lived in a car while she put herself through nursing school. Then she raised two kids as a single mom while working full time in the E.R.

A year after I left that job, I was having coffee with my friend Stephanie, who works in the same E.R. She told me that Kristin had just been diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at age 42. She had already started chemotherapy to shrink the tumors, and in a few months would have a mastectomy and radiation.

"How's she doing with everything?" I asked Stephanie.

"You know—it's hard," she said.

I nodded. It's been five years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27 and went through a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I also remember how far away God felt during that time, how I asked everyone I met—from the hospital chaplain to my oncologist to my pot-smoking neighbor—how God could do this to someone he loved when I wouldn't do it to someone I hated.

A few days after I found out about Kristin, I went to visit her. I handed her a jar of soup I'd made, and gave her a hug. She hugged me back, and didn't let go for a long time. When we pulled apart, ...

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