When the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States, Helene Neville packed her bags and headed from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to work as a nurse in a long-term care facility. She cared for patients until August then moved to Bismarck, North Dakota, to assist there. When she developed a fever and “crushing pain” in her head, she assumed she contracted COVID-19.
When she finally went to the emergency room after increasing symptoms, she received an unexpected diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a cancer that originates in your lymphatic system) that metastasized to her liver and spleen. Suddenly, the traveling nurse who always showed up to help others, was all alone, facing stage 4 cancer.
“I went into nursing to always help the vulnerable,” Neville, 60, a traveling nurse, told TODAY. “I can’t work until the chemo is over. That’s pretty tough.”
But Neville — an avid athlete who ran across every state in the U.S. and was planning on running across Canada — hopes to return to nursing as soon as she’s healthy.
“I’m going to fight like hell and I might win, because I’m tough," she said. "But I’m going to be an example of a way that people can have more grace … and just go through cancer with love.”
Heading to the front-lines
After working as a traveling nurse for 36 years, Neville knew that her help would be needed in the pandemic. So, she left her home base of Las Vegas to join others caring for COVID-19 patients.
“I was so proud that I was able to go to the front-lines and run toward the fire rather than away and I kicked some ass,’” she said. “I was glad I did. It was humbling. And it was super tough.”
From March to August, she held the hands of patients in the long-term care facility and “loved” them to help them grapple with loneliness and confusion as they faced illness and death without loved ones.
“I didn’t care if I spoke their language. A smile — even though you can’t see it with a mask on — is universal. Squeezing someone’s hand, that’s love,” she said. “As far as being isolated it had to be the worst for these people and it was just so sad. I had never been around something like that.”
In September, she moved to Bismarck to work there. She worked 12-hour days with her colleagues, trying to cope with the crush of COVID-19 patients flooding the hospitals.
“It’s pretty bad, especially in the Dakotas,” she said. “COVID-19 is like cancer. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care what your age is or gender. It’s coming.”
In mid-October, Neville started urinating more frequently and noticed she had dark, bubbly urine. She became jaundiced and experienced terrible headaches.
“I worked two extra shifts because they needed someone," she said. "After the final shift … I just got in my car and literally ran into the ER."
Because she had recently arrived, her benefits had not even started and she worried what that would mean.
“I just said, ‘I don't know anybody here. I'm a traveling nurse. I didn't even sign my insurance stuff. I'm so sick, but can you take care of me?’ And then I passed out on right on the floor,” Neville recalled.
When she woke, doctors told her that high calcium levels caused her yellow pallor. Then two days later, she was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors released her before starting chemotherapy. But then she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“I was so sick I could not eat. I lost 15 pounds because I lost the sense of smell and taste, but also lost the ability to swallow,” she said. “So rather than struggle, I just had to go to the hospital again to get fluids.”
There she learned she also had sepsis, an extreme reaction to an infection that can be fatal. While doctors treated her for that and she was still positive for COVID-19, she couldn’t start cancer treatment.
“It’s like the race to treat cancer started and I’m still in the locker room getting dressed,” she said. “It’s been a month already and I haven’t even been able to fight the cancer because of the COVID and being septic.”
Chemotherapy finally begins
On Dec. 2, Neville received her first round of chemotherapy and she has seven more rounds to complete. Her next dose will start on Dec. 23 and she’ll have to be in the hospital for four days. When she was released after her last 18 day-hospital stay, she learned that her landlord wanted her to move. Friends visited Bismarck to help her find a new place to live while she finishes treatment. She's anxious to start chemotherapy.
“I’m like 'Give me the (treatment),'”she said. “I have things to do. I’m running across Canada."
That dream is just one thing that keeps her motivated. Family is another. One of her grandchildren thinks she’s Captain America and told her “you’re tough, you’re going to get through this,” which made her smile.
“I want to give it a good fight,” she said. “This diagnosis is hovering over me but it’s not going to crush me.”