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Signs of Life

Jane jokes with Tony and Dolores Stratton


Times photo - JOANNA B. PINNEO

Jane jokes with Tony and Dolores Stratton, who came in for chemotherapy at Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa's office, where Jane works. Jane connects with "every personal crisis of every patient," Paonessa says.


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Now that her husband, Mick, was dying of AIDS, Jane needed to become the breadwinner. But she had left college at the age of 19 to marry Mick. After more than 20 years, would she be worth anything to anyone?

If she failed, it would not be from lack of effort. She prepared her resume, scoured want-ads and made a ton of phone calls. It took her three weeks.

In her journal, Jane describes what happened next: "They hired me! ... It's a very busy doctor's office. There is a three month trial period to see if you like it and they like you! It's really a little bizarre how things have been working out. The doctor turns out to be a hematology doctor and has a number of AIDS patients."

Jane did not try to find a job with a doctor who treated cancer and AIDS patients. She was anxious and desperate, so she took the first good office job to come along. It could have been in advertising and public relations. It just happened to be in oncology and hematology.

Her friend and co-worker, Carol Ann Bryant, looks back on the connection as providential. She remembers this "striking, beautiful, educated, articulate" woman looking for the receptionist job. She told her boss, Dr. Jeffrey L. Paonessa, "Jeff, we've got to have her."

No one in the office knew Jane's secret - they would not know for months. All they knew is that Jane seemed perfectly suited to work as "gatekeeper" in this office. It was important, when cancer or AIDS patients came into the office, that the first person they meet be helpful, sympathetic, friendly and efficient.

Jane was more than that. She helped make the office bright and cheery. She could make jokes even as she scooped dead fish out of the tropical aquarium so the chemotherapy patients would not be reminded of their own mortality.

She and Carol Ann developed support groups for cancer and AIDS patients, those in remission and their caregivers. Most important, Jane got to know the patients and their families as people. She could flirt or joke with them, make them feel relaxed and secure. Make them feel like family. Then, inevitably, week by week, someone would die.

"I cry with the patients," says Carol Ann, "Jane cries with the patients. I think it's very healthy that we do that."

Jane also calls Dr. Paonessa "Jeff," and it suits him. He is a tall, dark-haired, handsome doctor, who established his practice in the professional building next to St. Anthony's Hospital.

Suite 505 is clean, but not cold. Impressionist paintings of children decorate the walls. At one end is a large room rimmed with tan recliners. It looks like a beauty salon without hair dryers, or maybe a TV watcher's paradise. But the IV connectors provide the clue that this is where the chemo patients come for therapy.

Nearby, Jeff has a simple office. He is reading a scholarly medical journal titled Blood.

"It's interesting that Jane would even answer the ad," muses the doctor. "You might not have expected that, given the crisis in her own life." Jane connects with "every personal crisis of every patient. And a lot of our patients have both diseases," cancer and AIDS.

Jeff wonders if Jane sees in other people's suffering a way to deal with her own. He appreciates the way she can help a group of people meet to support each other and to open up about their fears and worries. "Jane is good at it," he says. "Maybe too good."

He explains what he means. Today he had a wrenching conversation with a breast cancer patient. She had a relapse, and he had to break the news to her. He told her she was going to die, something he has to do two or three times a week. Jane came back from seeing this patient and just cried and cried.

"If I had someone close to me die from this kind of disease," he says, "I'd isolate myself from the pain of others." As a cancer doctor he constantly tells himself: "Remember: They are the ones with the disease. I can feel sorry. But I can't take on their pain and suffering" and still be an effective healer.

Jane takes on their pain and suffering.

"Because of her situation," says Carol Ann, "Jane brought to the office a layperson's knowledge about AIDS. She was angry, of course. But she had been through so much, she was ready to learn more and to turn around and teach."

Then, one day it happened. A young person in the business office was doing paperwork with a patient. The patient was a young man. He excused himself to use what was then the only restroom in the office. The business clerk checked his file. He had AIDS.

She panicked. After he left, the clerk asked Jane to put up a sign.

Jane angrily refused and walked off.

So the clerk did it herself. She scrawled a message on a sign and posted it on the door as a warning: SOMEONE WITH AIDS JUST USED THIS BATHROOM.

THE SERIES: This is the 19th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 20, Fear of AIDS


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