Touched by a Saint Mary’s Nurse Angel

“I think we have been touched by a Saint Mary’s nurse angel…actually three nurse angels in the week I’ve been here,” said patient Stephen Dontje.

On Wednesday, December 4, 2019, Stephen underwent lung cancer surgery performed at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s.

A patient from the Cadillac area, several years ago, Stephen’s Primary Care Physician (PCP) had ordered a low-dose CT lung cancer screening due to Stephen’s years of smoking. The screening detected a very small nodule in the upper lobe of his left lung. Stephen’s PCP monitored it until it became larger and showed significant changes.

In August 2019, the scans indicated it was time to remove the nodule. Stephen’s physician referred him to Bruce Shabahang, MD, at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids.

“I was a little bit apprehensive. Through our discussion, he gave me the realization of what the surgery was. He explained that it was removal of the entire lobe — major surgery,” said Stephen.

Kathy, Stephen’s wife, attended her husband’s medical appointments. “Dr. Shabahang puts you at ease when he talks to you. I was concerned about this [diagnosis and surgery] but I knew Steve was in good hands.”

“After our first visit, I told Kathy that Dr. Shabahang is a marvelous person. It’s the way he relates to the patient. He is straightforward because he wants survival,” added Stephen.

The day before his surgery, a preregistration nurse from Mercy Health Saint Mary’s called Stephen. Her name was Virginia.

“I answered a couple of questions, and that was it,” Stephen recalled. “I mentioned to my wife Kathy that the nurse’s name was coincidental. In 1942, my mother began training as an RN at Saint Mary’s, and her name was also Virginia. My mother then moved to Cadillac, where she worked during her career, met my father and started a family. I grew up with a Mercy nurse mom.”

When he arrived for registration on the day of the surgery, Stephen told the registrar the story about his mother (now deceased) and the phone call the day before from Virginia.

“The lady at registration said that it was funny, because Virginia had trained at Mercy in Cadillac (now called Munson Healthcare Cadillac) and moved to Grand Rapids for her career,” Stephen said. Another coincidence!

During his stay, Stephen shared this “coincidence” with numerous people he encountered. One evening when he was in the Intensive Care Unit following surgery, he thought that his experiences at Saint Mary’s and these coincidences might make a nice article to put in a newsletter, if there was one for nurses.

“The head nurse on duty was Lucas, and I don’t know why, but I had this feeling that he could help. I asked him if, first, could he arrange for me to meet the Virginia, who had called me the day before surgery? Second, could he find out how I could share my story? He said he would take care of my requests,” said Stephen.

Stephen did meet Virginia, who shared that she had trained for nursing in Cadillac from 1964-1966. As he recalled, Stephen thinks his mom was working at Mercy in Cadillac at that time. “They might even have crossed paths,” he added. Another coincidence…

Later that night, Stephen did something he never does. “I picked up my phone to find out the biblical meaning of the name Lucas. I had a premonition that it meant something that fits into the ‘coincidences’ happening with my case. I found out it means ‘bringer of light, giver of light’.

“You need to know that l am not the kind of person who reaches out to touch other people,” said Stephen. “But later I grabbed Lucas’ hand [in gratitude] and said, ‘I think I’ve been touched by a Saint Mary’s nurse angel.’ Throughout my stay, I have physically touched and said that to three of the medical staff.”

Steve’s mother, Virginia Atchison

With the cancer removed and the pathology report indicating that the nearby lymph nodes were clear, Stephen’s prognosis is excellent. He does not require chemotherapy or radiation treatment. The Dontjes headed back to Cadillac in time for Christmas, which they planned to spend with their daughter and granddaughter. “You know, I think my mother was here with me,” said Stephen with a smile.

Thankful for the early detection of his cancer and for the remarkable care he received, Stephen described his week at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s as an “uplifting experience…kind of spiritual.

“It’s all those nurse angels. I was cared for excellently…the meals, the care, the people. I would rate my care a 12 out of 10! I was being embraced by angels.”

Find out more about Mercy Health’s low-dose CT lung cancer screening.

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