A mother in every sense of the word

Mother and daughter team help cancer patients.Rhonda Pillow isn’t taken by surprise when she enters a room and hears a cancer patient call her "mom."

Even though the word does take on a different meaning when it comes from a patient, she still finds an incredible importance to it.

Fittingly this greeting started with Pillow’s daughter, Sarah Davis, who is a healthcare tech on the same Oncology floor as Pillow at Carle Foundation Hospital. Although their roles are different—Pillow is a housekeeper—patients see them both on a regular basis and consider them a team.

Pillow often follows Davis into the patient room, but her daughter says it’s just too weird to call her mom “Rhonda” at work.

“So the patient will look up and just say, ‘Hi, mom,’” Pillow said. “I’ve had 90-year-old women call me ‘Mom’ when I clean their room, which is fine by me. I have five kids. I’ve been ‘Mom’ forever now.”

Both Pillow and Davis understand Oncology patients have a hard time opening up to those around them. It can be difficult for them to even talk to their own family about all that is going on.

So they make it part of their mission to break through and give the patient and family members a familiar face when they enter the room. And it helps if a mother and daughter come in to talk to you one after another.

“I just think it makes the patient realize that we are all just normal people who they can talk to,” Pillow said. “When I go in a room, this gives us something else to talk about.”

To Davis, just hearing that word from someone else proves Pillow is making an impact beyond what her job calls for.

“A lot of the patients meet my mom and immediately start telling me how awesome and wonderful she is,” Davis said. “I smile and tell them I already know that, but to hear other people talk about her that way is really cool.”

Davis also knows the patients see Pillow as someone who does her job with all her heart.

She doesn’t just clean their rooms. She takes the time to talk to them, and sometimes those conversations are heavy.

“A lot of the patients will tell me, point blank, that they’re dying. It seems like there are times people can talk to a housekeeper about something like that easier than talking to their own family,” Pillow said. “I don’t know why, really, but I guess it’s just because I try to listen.”

Both as a colleague and a daughter, she knows she can find her mom for those moments she needs her. Surely, Pillow is around somewhere nearby in the Carle hallways.

“It’s kind of neat to work with her, because—just like with patients—she makes the bad days better,” Davis said. “On those days that are just emotionally heavy, there is nobody that can make you feel better than your mom does.”

Pillow knows those days just by looking her daughter in the eye.

“I can tell by the look on Sarah’s face,” she said. “Her face gives her away, and it always has.”

And that is when the quality Davis most admires about her mom kicks in.

“What’s amazing to me is that she has the ability to enter a room and make anyone smile,” Davis said.

Photo by Kara Kamienski