Finley Hospital Nurse Finds Support During Cancer Diagnosis

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'The People Are Just Incredible:' Finley Hospital Nurse Finds Support During Cancer Diagnosis

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The team on 4 Med/Surg with Mike Vandermillen after being presented with the December DAISY Award.

Since he was nearly 19 years old, Mike Vandermillen, RN, knew he wanted to be a nurse. 

After watching the care his father received while being treated for renal cell carcinoma, Mike knew the difference nurses can make in people’s lives. 

“My dad passed away when I just turned 19,” Mike said. “I think it was around that time I wanted to become a nurse, because it had an impression on me – just being in that environment and seeing what people do.” 

It was in 1998 when Mike started as a registered nurse at Finley Hospital – a place he knew he wanted to be at. 

“I’ve always gotten care here at Finley,” Mike said. “I got my appendix taken out here and did most of my clinicals here. When my kids were younger and I was going to school, I said, ‘That’s [Finley] where I’m going.’ That’s exactly what happened. The people are just incredible here.”

But, on June 23, Mike began a new role at Finley Hospital, not as a nurse like most knew him, but instead, he was a patient in the emergency room. 

After waking up with swollen legs that morning, Mike knew something was wrong and chose to seek care from Finley’s emergency department. Several blood tests and CT scans revealed that Mike had pleural effusions in each lung, along with a pericardial effusion with fluid around his heart. Mike underwent procedures to drain the fluid in the lungs and around the heart, but that wasn’t enough. 

On June 27, Mike was officially diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, or adenocarcinoma. 

Mike spent most of his stay in the 4 Med/Surg unit, where he often cared for patients as one of the nurses on the floor. 

“When I was laying in the room in 4 Med/Surg, I knew things were kind of bad, because my boss, the chaplain and Chad Wolbers were in there. I just felt like it was kind of the end, because everyone was in tears.”

As part of his cancer treatment plan, Mike also completed 10 rounds of whole brain radiation at the Wendt Regional Cancer Center. 

While undergoing radiation therapy, Mike was thankful to once again be cared for by people that he often worked with. 

“I chose the Wendt Center, because it’s part of our hospital and is right here in Dubuque,” Mike said. “The majority of my treatment was with people that I work with. They’ve been super understanding when I’ve come in. It’s an extra special thing to go through treatment with people you work with.”

After being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and a brain tumor, Mike’s team on 4 Med/Surg showed their support with “V Strong” bracelets, T-shirts and window clings. In addition, members of the 4 Med/Surg team and other team members throughout the hospital mailed Mike cards while he was on a leave of absence, which brightened his spirits and gave him a good laugh every once in a while. 

“It was such a humbling experience,” Mike said. “I think they just took it upon themselves. With the T-shirts, they did three online orders and raised money for us. They even invited us up for breakfast one morning and gave us a gift card to Hy-Vee, which covered our Thanksgiving meal for our family.”

One person took notice of the substantial support Mike was given by his co-workers on 4 Med/Surg, who also happens to be Mike’s sister, Sue Bergfeld. 

Sue nominated Mike’s team on 4 Med/Surg for the DAISY team award, which their unit was presented on December 9. Continuing to show their support for Mike, the 4 Med/Surg team was decked out in their “V Strong” T-shirts for the award presentation.

Having his team win one of the highest honors for nurses and nursing staff, Mike was appreciative of his sister submitting the nomination, but also knows it was a thank you for being so supportive during one of the hardest times of his life. 

“I was really appreciative that my sister [Sue] did that,” Mike said. “It was a team award for them. They deserved it. You can only say thank you so many times and that just solidified that for me. I think it’s nice that they take care of their own like they do their patients.”

With a majority of his cancer journey in the rearview mirror, Mike is looking forward to January, not just because it marks the start of a new year, but also because it is hopefully when he will make his return back to Finley Hospital as a devoted employee. 

“I was planning to be in the ground months ago with that diagnosis,” Mike said. “Here we are, almost six months later, I had my recent scans and the majority of the tumor has been resolved. I’m hopefully going to try and come back to work in January for a little while.”

Since becoming a cancer survivor, Mike is back doing what he loves at Finley Hospital -- caring for our patients and being part of the team on 4 Med/Surg.

Mike Vandermillen with his family and co-worker during December's DAISY Award ceremony.