Cancer | Children's | Health News | Nursing

The way Dr. Aundrea Oliver met Abby Coderre was, in Dr. Oliver’s words, “fortuitous.”

Abby was a sophomore at East Carolina University when she needed surgery for a mass in her thoracic cavity. Dr. Oliver’s colleague received the call about her situation, but couldn’t perform the diagnostic procedure on her, so Dr. Oliver was asked to step in.

“We just kept going”

At the age of nine, Abby was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, so she was no stranger to hospitals. As she grew older, however, she began experiencing unusual symptoms.

In high school, she noticed bruising on her legs, but she attributed those to being a dancer. During the summer before her sophomore year, Abby experienced chest pain, but an initial doctor visit diagnosed her with a pulled muscle.

“The muscle relaxer the doctor prescribed didn’t help, so my sister insisted I go to the emergency department,” Abby said. “They did an x-ray and saw my esophagus was pushed off to one side, so they did a CT scan. That’s when they saw the mass in my chest.”

“Her mass was located next to her pulmonary artery and had invaded her pericardium,” Dr. Oliver said. What was supposed to be a four-hour surgery ended up taking Dr. Oliver eight hours to remove as much of the mass from Abby’s body as possible. “We tried to remove the majority of the mass and basically did a full resection.”

As a result, the doctors were able to correctly diagnose her with lymphoma and provide the right treatment.

That decision, Abby said, saved her life: “Who knows if chemo would have been able to get all of it?”

While Dr. Oliver has performed countless surgeries, she said Abby’s story sticks with her. “She was this young, vibrant college student who could have been my daughter, and her case was hard.” Dr. Oliver knew she wanted to do everything she could to help Abby. “We just kept going – we weren’t stopping until we got an answer,” Dr. Oliver said.

Abby’s recovery was, as Dr. Oliver put it, “slightly miraculous.”

“We cut through her phrenic nerve, so she shouldn’t have a voice at all. She should not be able to cough. But she still has great function.” Beyond the physical recovery, Dr. Oliver said it’s been gratifying to see Abby succeed in life: “To see her become this wonderful, exciting, vibrant caring woman and to go from being a happy college student to a mature individual – that gives in a way that I can only hope for is impressive.”

After surgery, Abby completed a two-and-a-half year chemotherapy regimen. Dr. Oliver was impressed by her commitment to her classes and studies while receiving treatment. “I was really proud of her. Whenever someone has to work twice as hard in order to achieve success, there is a greater depth of value in that education.” Dr. Oliver was doubly proud when she found out Abby wanted to be a nurse. “I was over the moon,” Dr. Oliver said. “She let me know she was interested in doing pediatric oncology, and I told her it was a perfect fit, that she was bright enough and she had the people skills to be a great nurse.”

A struggle worth the effort

Although it was challenging, Abby said it was important to her that she remain in school while undergoing treatment. “I needed to have some normalcy in my life,” she said. It became even more challenging when she transitioned to the actual nursing program. “I’d have to get chemo one day, and then the next day I’d be in the hospital as the student nurse and not the patient,” she said. “Then the next day I’d take a test.” As a result, Abby had to study extra hard and often took her notes with her to study during her chemotherapy treatment. She also took classes and tests online, even taking a few while she was in the hospital. “I took one final exam while I was in the ER, but it helped me get my mind off what was happening and gave me something else to focus on.”

Although Abby said she wondered when her cancer journey was going to be over, she advised anyone out there going through the same thing to remember it won’t last forever. “What you’re working for is worth it, no matter how hard the struggle. Just look at the end goal and do anything you can to make it good.”

ECU Health nurse Abby Coderre poses for a graduation photo on East Carolina University's campus. (Photo Courtesy of Abby Coderre)

Abby rang the bell to signify the end of her cancer treatment in November 2021, and when she graduated from college, she invited Dr. Oliver to the celebration.

“It’s not common to be invited to a patient’s graduation,” Dr. Oliver admitted. “To have someone years later have an important life event and say, I want you there – that means everything to me.”

Bridging two worlds

Now, Abby is a pediatric nurse working at ECU Health.

“When I first started nursing school, I didn’t want to stay in Greenville,” she shared. “But I really fell in love with the hospital. The team I was treated by was amazing, and I saw the impact they had on me as well as other kids. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.”

While their professional lives may not intersect much, Dr. Oliver is thrilled to have Abby as a colleague: “Abby is the perfect container for life, and she’s going to give it to a bunch of little kids who are scared life is going to be taken away from them.”

Coderre agreed that bridging the worlds of patient and nurse gives her a unique perspective that has helped her be a better nurse. “It gave me a lot of empathy toward my patients, because I know what they’re going through. I know what it feels like to be on the other side of things. I wouldn’t be half the nurse I am if I hadn’t been a patient also.”

As for Dr. Oliver, she said the value of her work has been solidified. “It’s easy to feel like what you do doesn’t matter or doesn’t have an impact. If I never have another patient like Abby Coderre – if Abby is my one Abby – then my career is complete. That was the best eight hours I could have ever spent.”

Looking back, Abby said she wouldn’t be here if not for her ECU Health team working together.

“I couldn’t say anything better about ECU Health. It’s amazing, with the best nurses and doctors.” She also holds a special place in her heart for Dr. Oliver: “She is just an amazing human being.”

In her ECU Health profile, Abby wrote that her role model is “Dr. Aundrea Oliver, the most amazing surgeon and person that has ever graced my life by saving my life.”