Sarah’s Superman Inspires Career Battling Cancer
Before opening the door, Sarah Wheeler prepares for the unknowable monster taking hold on the other side. She’s aware that cancer can yank her patients’ lives off their desired paths and reroute them through a dark, uncertain one.
That’s because it’s taken Sarah down the same road.
“If you’ve walked through those trenches, if you’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death yourself,” said Dr. James Lynch, a professor of hematology and oncology at UF Health, “you are a much more sensitive and caring person because you can relate on a level that other people simply can’t.”
Sarah, a clinical pharmacy specialist at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, has an enormous challenge every time she approaches her patients’ bedside. The 33-year-old from Plant City, Florida must arm her patients with the knowledge they need to battle the fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis, while coordinating their treatment.
Each trip Sarah takes to her patients’ rooms can be traced back to her own life-altering experiences with cancer. Her father, Wayne Wheeler, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer when she was 15 years old. Wayne was given 18 months to live, but her “Superman” survived nearly four years.
“Daddy’s illness totally was the precipice for why and how I became a pharmacist,” Sarah said. “His fighting spirit through the whole thing really gave me a lot of things to aspire to as I grew up and ways to kind of handle hard situations.
“With some of the chemotherapy he had, he’d get nauseous and vomit. What was interesting sometimes was to see him throw up and then go right back to what he was doing. He was really determined in not letting cancer dictate his life. Throughout his cancer treatment, he was a walking miracle.”
Five years after Wayne died, her mother Charlene, aka Charlie, was also diagnosed with cancer on her 50th birthday — coincidentally, the same cancer her father had.
While Wayne’s diagnosis would launch Sarah on her career path, her mother’s diagnosis would teach Sarah how to be a primary caregiver, which she still is for her mother today.
“I don’t know if I can really call myself a momma bear about my momma, but I really am,” Sarah said. “So anytime she’s in the hospital, I’m like, ‘What medicine is that? Why are you giving that to her? What is this?’ Which sometimes I think drives her crazy, but I think all in all, she appreciates it.”
Although Wayne and Charlie’s diagnoses shaped their only child in different ways, both serve as Sarah’s daily driving force to help others who are getting ready for the same struggle. They link Sarah to all her patients and allow her to empathize with them and their loved ones.
“If my experience gives me a special set of skills that other people don’t have and there’s an avenue for me to use them, then I should,” said Sarah, whose grandfather had surgery for prostate cancer in 2001. “Cancer, fear, those things don’t always get to win. We get to fight back. And so I like being able to be the one that walks in and says, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and we’re going to help you be you all the way through.’”
The Human Dimension of Medicine
The importance of Sarah’s job can’t be overstated. In the world of oncology, the drugs, the delivery of those drugs and mapping out chemotherapy treatment plans is all very complicated.
“Years ago, it became the practice to hire a pharmacy doctor who specializes in oncology to oversee the administration of chemotherapy, particularly in complicated inpatient services,” Lynch said. “And so that’s what Sarah’s job is, and she is masterful at it.”
Lynch, who’s been at the University of Florida for 30-plus years, remembers when clinical pharmacists weren’t there to help. Now it’s hard for him to imagine how health systems ever functioned without them.
Due to the increased complexity of cancer treatment, having a single person who oversees the process of administering chemotherapy is now essential in every medical center. Some health systems have more than one depending on the volume of patients they’re treating.
Although Sarah is well-recognized for how gifted she is in the technical aspects of the role, where she specializes in hematology and oncology, her unique ability to connect on a personal level sets her apart even further. Sarah doesn’t view her patients through the prism of her position. The truth is, when Sarah looks at her patients, she sees so much of herself.
“Not all practitioners, not all nurses, not all pharmacists are as attuned to the human dimension of medicine as others,” Lynch said. “That human dimension of medicine is a key component of what I think it is to be a physician, and to greater or lesser levels of success, I have strived to nurture that part of my own clinical practice. And I saw that that was important to Sarah from the first time that we met.”
Sarah’s patients feel that genuine relationship right away.
Jay Davis was 18 years old when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after he experienced a growth on his neck that swelled to the size of a tennis ball. The third-year UF psychology major from Tampa, Florida, recalled how sincere Sarah was throughout his treatment, from the empathy she showed when they met to her regular visitations when he was an outpatient.
“I knew I was going to be in good hands,” said Davis, who says he is healthy and doing amazing now. “She was very receptive of anything that I needed or how I was feeling. She took my emotions and my side effects into account at all times. I definitely felt like I was in safe hands. There was never a moment where I was iffy.”
Opening Up Her Veins
Charlie believes that “every cancer patient needs a Sarah.” Her daughter wholeheartedly believes the same, which is why Sarah’s connection with cancer patients goes beyond the ones she sees at the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital.
Sarah donates blood platelets at LifeSouth every other week. Platelets are tiny cells in blood that form clots and prevent bleeding. Every 15 seconds, someone with cancer, a chronic disease or a traumatic injury requires platelets. They must be used within five days, so donors are constantly in demand.
Already being a regular blood donor, something she did routinely with her grandfather starting at age 17, Sarah was told her Type O+ blood was good for donating platelets.
After learning that, Sarah began spending an hour and a half of her time each visit to donate blood platelets, which are vital for many, especially those who are fighting leukemia and lymphoma. Sarah has seen the need as the hospital has gone through several shortages since she’s been at UF Health.
“Help comes in a lot of different ways, and I think it’s important for us to keep our eyes open to the different ways that we can help and realize that all of us have some skill that we can do to help people,” Sarah said. “And for me, if that means that I sit there with my arm like this and literally open up my veins for people, I will do it. And if I need to open up my heart to tell my story, I’ll do that, too.”
Donating blood platelets is important for several reasons. For one, a major side effect to cancer treatment is low platelet count, which can result in life-threatening bleeding. They also help those who need to replace platelets that are lost after major surgery or serious injury. In addition, platelets help those with blood disorders or those who’ve had a transplant.
Talking to Her Star
Sarah was the introverted daughter of an extroverted father. She remembers being “completely encapsulated” by the giant bear hugs that 6-foot-4 Wayne, nicknamed “Spider” because of his lanky figure, would give her.
In many ways, Sarah’s legacy is passing that feeling on to her patients, erasing their fear and replacing it with comfort.
Her father is still a point of comfort for her now in the form of a star on her ankle. Sarah, a country girl who has always loved stargazing, got the tattoo in memory of her father after having a discussion with a friend who shares the same grief.
“It’s green, because his favorite color is green,” Sarah said. “It’s kind of a two-fold purpose. One, if I ever need to talk to my dad and I can’t, I can look at my ankle. The other thing is, whenever I need to have a way to center myself back to me, and if it’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and there are no stars, I can also take a moment, look at my ankle, take a breath and find my way back.”
Sarah’s found her way back from the uncertain route that cancer once took her through. Now her life’s work as a clinical pharmacy specialist is opening that door and helping those on the other side do the same. All the while, she reminds them that “everyone’s walks are different.”
And while her father serves as her North Star, Sarah knows he’d be over the moon to see just how many paths Sarah has positively impacted already. He was undoubtedly her biggest fan, although Wayne — a lifelong Alabama fan — wouldn’t be the biggest fan of her being in Gator Country.
“I could pretty much do no wrong in his eyes, so if he were here today, I know he’d be really proud of me. He’d give me a huge bear hug,” Sarah said. “And he would also really be proud of the fact that something came out of what he had to go through, and that I made something out of it.”
What Makes Sarah Special
Rob Rushin, a T-cell lymphoma patient, talks about the meaningful bond he developed with Sarah.
Helen Welsh, a nurse manager, illustrates Sarah’s unique connection to patients and shares a story.
Solmaz Karimi, an orthopharmacy student at UF, explains the difference Sarah has made on her career.
Rhonda Matheny, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient, speaks from the heart about Sarah’s lasting impact on her.
Videography by Kyle Walker, UF Health Creative Services.