ERIE — “Heroes Work Here” signs have been seen at health care facilities everywhere since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While each health care worker is doing their part, behind the scenes, out of the limelight, the heroism of some is immeasurable, giving greater depth to a statement by Florence Nightingale, who is widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”
Labette Health intensive care unit director Becky Hunn, a registered nurse, has epitomized that sentiment throughout her life and career, but perhaps never more so than the last five years she has worked to save others’ lives, all while fighting to save her own.
In the beginning
No doubt, nursing was in Hunn’s blood.
“I have a letter from myself to my third grade teacher saying, ‘I want to be a nurse,’” Hunn said as she sat at her dining room table, sharing her story on a recent winter day. “My mom was a nurse and my dad was a doctor. That is what I went into college for.”
She graduated Erie High School in 1973 and earned a bachelor’s in nursing in 1977. Intensive care and critical care were her passion from the start as she traveled to work in positions at hospitals in Oklahoma and Florida. Then she took a short-term assignment in Reno, Nevada, that was supposed to be from September to December 1980. That’s where she not only became enchanted with the active lifestyle the area afforded, but also met a respiratory therapist named Greg Hunn from Huntington Beach, California.
Back then, Hunn said, nurses couldn’t extend their assignments, so she stayed on — 13 years — eventually marrying Greg Hunn and having three children. They enjoyed parenthood, in addition to downhill ski trips, cross-country backpacking, wind surfing, mountain biking and rock climbing.
“It was a great time. Three children was fun, but it was scary, which is why we moved back here,” Hunn said, referencing her children reaching school age and their concerns about the massive schools and violence.
Coming back to Erie for her 20-year high school reunion in 1993, the Hunns’ visit to her family’s farm that was for sale solidified their decision. Despite the poor conditions, they decided to buy the farm, fix it up, call it home and enjoy the benefits of small-town schools and rural living. Hunn began work at Labette Health on Nov. 15, 1993. Her husband initially went to work at Children’s Mercy, driving to Kansas City, Missouri, weekly to work and staying there with family.
Hunn worked skilled nursing on the third floor and in the emergency room until a position opened up in ICU.
“It’s not an easy job, but you have more control of the patient. What’s being done is by you because you are doing total patient care,” Hunn said. “You are not having anybody else underneath you to worry about what they are doing.
“I like the technical part of the nursing skills that you get working in ICU, the challenge of the big puzzle, trying to figure out what’s going on, what am I missing … It was the challenge I loved, and the best outcome for the patient is what you always wished for. There were definitely rewards, but not always great outcomes … Some had so many deficits to overcome.”
Her husband can attest to the passion Hunn brings to the ICU.
“Society’s definition of success is based on financial gain, but Bec is the true manifestation of success. … Nursing isn’t just a profession; it’s a way of being. I have never understood people who work in health care saying they leave everything behind when they go home. Bec is every experience, both happy and sad, positive and negative. How could anything be left behind when the culmination of everything is defined by her being a nurse,” Greg Hunn said. “Bec has become everything I/we only aspired to be. Bec is focused, compassionate, tolerant and deeply caring.”
The couple, living on the farm in rural Erie, worked hard and raised their children, Eric, Kim and Marisa, using time off to take them on adventures, to enjoy the great outdoors, teaching them to have fun and live life big in addition to working hard. After all, Nightingale had it right when she said, “Live life when you have it. Life is a splendid gift — there is nothing small about it.”
Their children grew, graduated high school and headed off to college and careers.
“Growing up, others’ kids got their examples of strong, empowered women by books or movies. I was lucky enough to see an example every day,” Hunn’s daughter, Marisa Jones, said. “It is easy to speak of feminism, but to actually live it is an art. I was taught confidence and self-love. If you wanted something, you work for it. If the fence was broke, wake up and fix it. If you want a better education for your kids, you start a petition, get the votes and make a change. If you see injustice, you fight it. Silence is compliance. Even if it’s easier to agree, doesn’t mean it’s right. You constantly fight against small minds and mean hearts. Bad things happen. … Things die. But we can still be kind.
“So many people told me how wonderful my mother was in their time of need, how compassionate and knowledgeable. Qualities everyone should strive for. As a mother, there was never a doubt of her love for us. It isn’t a smothering love but an unbreakable loyalty, stable and solid that we are able to have a strong foundation to build our own families. We were taught about independence but with support. If success was measured by the quantity of love you received by everyone you met, my mother would be the most successful.”
Eric Hunn, following in his parents’ footsteps, decided to pursue medical school and become a surgeon. He began his residency in 2015.
“My mother has been a vital role in my journey to become a physician. She has set a great example for me to strive for as I begin my career. Mom has been very talented at balancing her work life and home life. She was, and still is to this day, very dedicated to her job as a registered nurse,” he said. “When I worked as a certified nurse aide, through college, I had the opportunity to work with my mother for the first time. I had nurses tell me that she is the smartest nurse they know. Other nurses have told me that she should’ve become a physician. Many health care professionals look to her for advice or guidance when it comes to patient care. Both of my parents have been extremely supportive in my choice to become a physician.”
Life was good.
A twist of fate
Work, family and just living life in general brought joy to the Hunns. They even started their own vineyard on their family farm in 2010, pursuing new challenges.
Then, on Dec. 31, 2015, Becky Hunn was diagnosed with colon cancer, discovered during a routine examine. A biopsy of a spot on her liver led to a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. Oncologist Dr. Nassim Nabbout told her if she didn’t have treatment, there would be only a 5% chance she would be alive in a year.
“I didn’t like that answer, so I said, ‘What do I do?’”
With that answer, she began what turned into five years of various chemotherapy treatments and surgeries. At the end of each, she was told the lamentable news that the treatment had failed and the cancer had spread.
“Finally, the chemo quit working, which they said it would eventually,” Hunn said. “That was last February 2020. I think I counted up by then a total of 65 or 70 rounds of chemo in that period of time. Then we tried oral chemo, Stivarga, but it gave me such bad side effects.”
Through it all, she continued to work, even as COVID-19 made its way into Labette County and the hospital. More patients needed critical care than ever, and she planned to be there for them.
“Becky’s response when COVID hit was not to retreat. She stepped up to the front line and led her staff with such courage and selflessness; that is leadership,” said Kathi McKinney, Labette Health vice president and chief nursing officer.
“It’s been a total change,” Hunn said. “I was around for HIV in Reno in 1980, H1N1 virus and swine flu, and there’s not been anything like this. It’s a whole new ballgame. … Nowadays, the length of stay is a month for some of them. The saddest thing is the loneliness of the patient, not having family. … Lately we have a lot of them come back in a second time with infections, lung infections, so much anxiety with shortness of breath. They can’t hardly move.”
McKinney said when Hunn began in 1993 she brought with her many years of experience and influenced everyone she worked with on some level.
“All of us that have had the honor of working alongside Becky knew she was special and have learned so much from her knowledge and example. As an individual, she cared so deeply of each patient situation and as a leader she made sure each patient got the best from her and the ICU staff. Being a nurse is not what she did; it was who she is,” McKinney said. “Becky understood what it was like to fight through difficult situations with her patients and over the past few years herself while battling cancer; working day after day, feeling the effects of the treatments, she never complained. Becky continued to work tirelessly to save others while fighting for her own life, unbeknownst to her patients because their battle was just as important to her.”
While working through helping patients this winter, Hunn began another oral chemo treatment called Lonsurf. However, she had only taken it for two weeks when she was personally hit with COVID-19 around Christmas and had to stop treatment. By the time her three-week bout with COVID ended, her cancer had progressed to the evident point further treatment was futile. She made the decision Jan. 22 to end treatment, telling her coworkers and family.
Facing the end
Response to her decision from her co-workers: “We back you all the way no matter what you decide. We know it’s been coming, but it’s still hard.”
“In the last two places I’ve worked, they are just like family, my second family, my friends, especially at Labette Health,” Hunn said. “It makes me proud to be a part of their team, part of their group. They are the greatest nurses.”
As for her husband and children, Hunn said, “The girls have always been, ‘Whatever you want, Mom. Whatever you want.’ It’s been Eric and Greg saying, ‘You should try.’ I was usually into it most of the time.”
The reality of the moment being upon them now is difficult to digest, no matter the likelihood looming in the recesses, given the original diagnosis several years back.
She has no regrets for her long and arduous fight. The last five years she has had five grandchildren born. Another is due in April. She has watched her children mature into strong young adults of good character, complete their educations and become focused on stable futures for themselves and their children.
“Bec has always been a great parent. We raised three beautiful children together,” Greg Hunn said. “Bec has always had a long-range plan for our kids. Motivating them to excel in school and careers has always been her priority. Also instilling strength of character and work ethic, but most importantly Bec has given them the ability to have fun and experience life to the fullest.”
Through all five years of Eric Hunn’s residency, his mother has undergone treatments for cancer. Hanging on, she has had the chance to watch her son become a surgeon in the same hospital she has worked nearly three decades, work with him directly and hear other people who work with him compliment him.
“Fortunately, I now have had the opportunity to again work with my mother. She has assisted me placing central venous lines in the ICU, and she has taken exceptional care of my post-operative surgical patients,” Eric Hunn said of his mother. “She is a quiet and humble person who seeks no recognition or awards, even though she has trained many generations of nurses and raised the bar in quality patient care in Parsons, Kansas, for the past 27 years.”
Though enduring pain and fatigue, Hunn still continues to make her way to work each day. She has not decided her last day but has no intent to sit at home and wait to die.
“Bec is busy being her purpose. Showing up and being strong are part of what defines her,” Greg Hunn said. “This is why she is a positive example for other people fighting cancer. Bec’s fight is their fight. Her strength while suffering gives them strength in their suffering.”
“I guess I will be done when I can’t make it from the car to the office,” Becky Hunn said. “Kathi McKinney is an awesome CNO. She has been there the whole time I have been there, and she was a friend in high school, too. She says whatever I can do, as long as I can stay — six hours, four-hour shifts, she doesn’t care. I’m doing all office now, three eight-hour shifts of office work and training Chelsea Smith as the interim director. She’ll be awesome. She is a great nurse.”
How long does Hunn have to live? She doesn’t know.
“I asked (the doctor) for a timeline and he said, ‘You are not supposed to be here now.’ That’s what I get now. ‘You’re not even supposed to be here. How can we say?’ He said, ‘I could say two or three months and that I doubt you will make it till Christmas, but …’ This was in June when I was talking to him … So, I don’t have a timeline.”
Until that day arrives, every day is cherished. The family, including children and grandchildren, just made a trip together to Missouri, enjoying those precious moments.
“Grandchildren were a definite game-changer for Bec. … It’s amazing to see the expanding capacity for love. Each new grandchild expanded Bec’s heart,” Greg Hunn said.
Hunn is comfortable with her decision, though she admittedly worries most about her grandchildren and the world they will live in, environmentally, politically, socially, into the future. Given their youth, she also knows they will likely not remember her, so she hopes the stories told them express the woman she was and that she was “adventurous, hopefully fun and crazy at times.”
Becky Hunn is thankful her family is all there for one another. She expressed deep thanks for her life and love she has experienced, especially with her husband who has been by her side through it all. In March, the Hunns will have been married for 31 years.
“It is an honor and incredibly humbling to be on this amazing journey together. I guess I have always been Bec’s corner man. It has been my responsibility and an honor to support and protect her wishes and goals. At times I have had to motivate her, and other times I have to support her decisions, no matter how painful they are to all of us,” Greg Hunn said. “For (five years) Bec has been fighting for her life, and through it all Bec is strength, dignity and grace. Bec is all our hero. I know she is mine.”