Off and on for more than 28 years, Air Force Veteran Norman Blackwell has been fighting cancer. For almost two decades, the 78-year-old has received his cancer care at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee.

“Sometimes I would get a period of two or three years cancer free and then it would show its head,” Blackwell said. “The team would jump on it and then it would go away.”

With the opening of the new Ernest Childers VA Outpatient Clinic in Tulsa, the facility is offering a new service, like chemo/infusion treatment. Previously, VA only offered cancer treatment in Muskogee.

Despite living in Tulsa, Blackwell reluctantly agreed to change his cancer care from Muskogee to Tulsa.

Nurse Julie Southern (left) and Nurse Manager Melinda Wall with Blackwell

“They talked me into it.”

“I had to go down a couple more times just to make my decision, but they kind of talked me into it,” Blackwell said. “I love the people down there. They have always treated me like I’m part of them. I feel very comfortable going there. We laugh, we talk. They get the chemo in me and I’m gone again.”

Staff in Muskogee were sad to see him transfer his care to Tulsa, but happy for him.

“Mr. Blackwell was a favorite of mine,” said Nurse Debbie Boyattia-Jones, Chemo/Infusion Unit. “We did not want to see him go but we understand the convenience.”

Blackwell said the shorter drive is a perk.

“I’m getting the same treatment in Tulsa and it’s a lot of miles off my body,” he added. “I have to come twice a week because I come over on Monday to get my blood drawn to see if I’m ready to take the chemo. Then I’m here Tuesday morning.”

A special relationship

With the frequency that cancer patients receive care, it is common for clinical staff to form close relationships with their patients.

“I know everything about his family,” said Nurse Manager Melinda Wall, Specialty Care. “It’s not just a nurse-patient relationship and that’s what I have really loved about chemo. You do form those bonds with your patients and get to really feel like you’re helping them.”

Nurse Julie Southern, Muskogee & Tulsa Chemo/Infusion Units, echoed how special her relationship is with VA patients.

“I absolutely love this job because we do get to spend time with them and build relationships and be a part of their lives,” Southern said. “My goal is to get them through this the best I can with the resources we have. I’ll never work with anyone but Veterans now. I’m sold on you guys and girls.”

Could go anywhere but prefers VA

Blackwell said he can go anywhere for his health care but chooses VA due to the relationships he has built with VA staff.

Wall said it is humbling that Veterans choose VA.

“I think that says a lot about our team when he can go wherever he wants to go,” Wall added. “We want him to want to come here.”

Blackwell doesn’t know if he will ever ring the bell to signify his last cancer treatment, but it’s not something he worries about.

“I have full blown cancer and have for all these years,” he said. “I’m very comfortable. I don’t wake up in the morning and wonder, ‘Am I going to make it?’ I don’t do that. When God calls me home, I’m gone. Other than that, I try to live my life the best I can.”

By Nate Schaeffer is a public affairs specialist for the Eastern Oklahoma VA

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Published on Jan. 23, 2022

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  1. Lee Proper January 27, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    I agree with Ernie Howe. Thank you.

  2. Pat Dwyer January 26, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    No system is perfect, and the preceding commenter has expressed his version of why he’s not a V.A. fan. However, I have been a V.A. patient since early 2009, and a chemotherapy patient since late 2010 as a result of Agent Orange exposure in 1968 while serving [Army] in the Mekong Delta. I am in remission as of mid-2018 for that lymphoma, but have had 3 more cancers diagnosed and treated for 2 of them and in treatment for the 3rd one. I cannot say enough good things about how I have been treated by the nurses, doctors, aides, techs, and staff at the Oakland, San Francisco, and Martinez V.A. clinics and hospitals. I have known some of them for 10 or 11 years and they make me feel like I have dozens of sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles taking care of me. Example: one of the nuke medicine techs has heloed me with several PETscans over the years. I asked him how long he’d been at the SF V.A, and he said: “almost 30 years.” I asked him if he liked the work and the people, and he said that he wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. Being disabled himself, he had not been in the military; but his work brings him in contact with many of us who are disabled for whatever reason, and we all benefit mutually. The V.A. personnel are also reflective of what makes our military strong: diversity. Skin color, religion, size, politics, ethnicity are non-factors. We learned “to move with a purpose” and that has been my experience at the V.A.: dedicated professionals delivering world-class medicine.

  3. Ernie Howe January 24, 2022 at 8:41 pm

    Ok, you got one, but what about those of us who DO NOT TRUST VA Healthcare! How about the vet in hospice a few years back who had MAGHOTS under his bandages when he died. Or the 22 year soldier & vet gor 7 days was overdosed bybthe Charles George VA in Asheville, NC. Or a guy ibwas in the jungle with & his spot of cancer on a kidney. VA solution, cut off half his kidney. A REAL civilian doctor cut a 2 ” incision, took the spot out, a few chemo or radiation treatments & cancer free now about 14 years. Or another buddy I served with had a growth on his cheek. Chicago VA said it was benign & not to worry. A REAL doctor on the outside told him if he had waited he’d be a dead man! Many other TRUE stories out there!
    I wouldn’t take my dog to a VA facility. I see Comm Care doctors. Why does VA care meet all requirements of the ACA & PART D medicare, but not PART B? SO OUR Best Care Available doesn’t meet the minimum standards of Medicare? Because if it did, then we vets could get real care in the civilian sector, but since it doesn’t meet Medicare standards we vets are FORCED INTO TNE VA SYSTEM! The first mission ofvthe VA is to Protect the System. 2nd is to make the statistics look good to accomplish NO. 1. Then # 3 is accomplish #’s 1 & 2 thus protecting those bonuses & promotions and vets are just the tool.used to keep a corrupt, incapable, uncaring System afloat! And use vets to experiment & traing purposes!
    If VA care is SO GOOD, then tell us why we need Wounded Warriors, DAV, PAV begging for money to give veterans the care the VA can’t or won’t give us!
    You will never convince that VA care is anything but a govt run debacle that has gotten so big the coward politicians are afraid to fix it.
    A Disgusted with the lie from the cowards in DC to good to serve themselves!! Give vets an option for PAID MEDICARE!

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