Laura Houchin, MSN, RN, who retires later this month after 48 years of nursing, has worked many “a hard-day’s night.” If there’s one thing she won’t miss, it’s her alarm clock. But leaving is bittersweet. Few know better than Houchin how to pilot the many challenges new nurses encounter after entering the field. It’s teaching and mentoring them that she’ll miss the most.
“I want our nurses to understand where we've come from,” said Houchin, an oncology nurse at Duke since 1990. “A few things have changed since 1970 when I first entered nursing. Back then, we didn’t have computers, and until the 1980s, only doctors wore gloves. Effective medications for treating nausea is relatively new to us. Understanding the past gives our nurses an appreciation for where we are today.”
Located on Level 4 of Duke Cancer Center, Houchin, 70, trains and instructs nurses in symptom management and the administration of chemotherapy. Nurturing and caring for others seemed to come natural to Houchin whose mother was also a nurse. It was her father’s encounter with cancer, however, that motivated Houchin to specialize in oncology. Diagnosed in 1969 with lung cancer, he passed away just months after she married.
“We actually moved up our wedding date just so Dad could walk me down the aisle,” remembered Houchin, who at the time was enrolled in nursing school in northwest Indiana. “Helping to care for my father enabled me to understand how cancer affects families. It also helped to shape the direction of my career.”
Decades later, by then an established nurse, Houchin's family was faced with another cancer diagnosis. This time it was her eldest son. He had sarcoma.
“It was just unbelievable,” she shared, her voice cracking slightly despite the tens of years that have transpired since her son’s loss. “Brian was a professional chef living in Atlanta. Even though I asked him to come up to Duke where I was working, he said, ‘No, up there I’m your son. Down here I am Brian.’ Looking back, it was for the best. I knew this was a bad diagnosis. I really knew too much.”
Houchin, the mother of three, hoped at best for at least several years of remission. However, that wasn’t to be. After just 17 months of treatment and at 31 years old, he succumbed to his cancer. The loss, she said, opened the door, albeit uninvited, to a better understanding of the “utter devastation” experienced by those loved ones left behind.
“Laura understands what presence means in another person’s life,” said Tracey Gosselin, PhD, RN, AOCN, chief nursing and patient care services officer for Duke University Health. “Early in my career I was fortunate to have Laura teach and guide me – her focus then was always on the patient. All these years later, the patient is still Laura’s primary focus.”
It won’t be easy for Houchin to leave nursing. It is not just a profession; it’s a lifestyle that has forged Houchin’s identity for the better part of half a century. However, Houchin will push through the bittersweet goodbyes. After all, there are plans for her newly found free time.
Houchin’s husband has told her to get her passport ready. Avid Beatles fans since the 1960s, the couple plans to make England one of their first stops. Their planned pilgrimage to Liverpool will surely include a pint at the Blue Angel pub, a visit to Eleanor Rigby’s grave, a meander past Paul McCartney’s childhood home on Forthlin Road and, of course, a stroll down Penny Lane.
“Just to stand on the sidewalks in Liverpool will be an exciting moment," said Houchin, already discovering, as the Beatles song goes, . . . Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da life goes on.
There will be a retirement party for Laura on Friday, July 27, at 5 p.m. in the Level 2 Conference Room at Duke Cancer Center. Everyone is invited to attend.