New Award Named in Honor of Veteran Hematology/Oncology Nurse

In the busiest of days, when patients and staff were climbing physical and emotional mountains, there was always a calm presence and brassy voice in Sylvia Watson, RN, endearing all of those around her in the Section of Hematology/Oncology.

Sylvia Watson, RN

A University of Chicago Medicine nurse of 31 years, Watson died suddenly at age 63 in January.  However, her legacy of knowledge, kindness and collaboration continues with the new Sylvia Watson Award for Excellence in Ambulatory Oncology Nursing Practice.

“You could count on her for anything,” said Research Nurse Associate Livia Szeto, RN, BSN, OCN, a longtime friend of Watson’s.

“She was always calm. If you needed an answer regarding a question of a patient, she would find it for you. To me, she was like an older sister. You could always go to her.”

Established by her colleagues in recognition of Watson’s commitment to ongoing professional education, the Sylvia Watson Award will be presented to a Hematology/Oncology nurse at the Nursing Excellence Awards Ceremony on May 12 for the first time.

Watson earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from DePaul University in 1972. She promptly joined Michael Reese Hospital  as a staff nurse on the medical oncology unit and became head nurse of the unit in 1976.

She joined the University of Chicago Medicine two years later as a staff nurse on the inpatient hematology unit. She was named Assistant Head Nurse in 1981 and became one of the section’s first Nurse Associates in late 1982.

The Sylvia Watson Award will fund travel for a nurse to further his/her oncology education, a culmination of Watson’s passions.

Philip C. Hoffman, MD

If Watson wasn’t at work or traveling the world, she was at a conference, furthering her knowledge of clinical oncology and lecturing at international symposia.

Watson trained almost all the senior faculty in clinical research on the value of superb nursing care, said Philip C. Hoffman, MD, Professor of Medicine in the Section of Hematology/Oncology. He and Watson met soon after he joined the University of Chicago Medicine as a fellow in 1977.

“She always told the fellows about how things are run, but in a nurturing and positive way. She was a collaborative nurse. She was a mother hen for everyone, always making sure the fellows were situated,” Hoffman recalled.

He also took notice of Watson’s observational skills. She had a way of looking out for people and intuitively knowing if they didn’t look “copasetic,” as she said, and knew that their care needed to be escalated or addressed differently after a glance around the waiting room, he said.

Her patients loved her and trusted her, and physicians relied on her totally, Hoffman said.

“Her desk was filled with pictures of patients she had cared for—she considered them part of her family,” he said.

But, Watson wasn’t always all work and no play. She showed her colleagues when it was time to sing and dance.

John Ultmann, MD, a pioneer in the treatment of lymphoma who died in 2000, taught Watson to sing Christmas carols in German. During the holidays, the pair rounded the halls, singing in German.

At holiday staff dinners, Watson and Hoffman, her dance partner, would step out on the dance floor.

“As soon as they went out to the floor and started dancing, everyone knew it was their cue that it was OK to dance,” Szeto said.

Ravi Salgia, MD, PhD

Watson is irreplaceable, said Ravi Salgia, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Pathology, and Dermatology, Director of the Thoracic Oncology Program.  The pair worked closely together for 11 years.

Watson had a calming effect on patients under the toughest circumstances, Salgia said. One patient was reluctant to undergo chemotherapy until Watson talked him through the process.

“Sylvia was an exceptional nurse,” Salgia said. “She had a collaborative nature. No task was too small or too big. Her strength was integrating her depth of knowledge and care with patient centricity. . . We will miss her. ”

Nominations for the Sylvia Watson Award for Excellence in Ambulatory Oncology Nursing Practice should be hand-delivered or e-mailed to Caroline Kelly, Practice Administrator, Clinical Cancer Center. Nominations are due by 5 p.m. March 26.

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