She’s a tiny thing, really, Julie Boyle – this slight woman with a contralto voice whisking around the halls at UCI’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Boyle is the first staff member to win the University of California, Irvine Medal, UCI’s highest honor, for her work as a veteran clinical oncology nurse and as the cancer center’s director of patient care. Those around her say they’re not surprised at the rare feat.

“Being a nurse is being Julie,” says Dr. Frank L. Meyskens Jr., senior associate dean and longtime director of the Chao center. “Intelligent compassion, always putting the patient first, 24/7 dedication, intimidated by no one, leads by example – she’s a great lady and remarkable woman.”

When she hears such accolades, Boyle just laughs: “I’m not really a Girl Scout,” she says, in her compact office at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. “It’s just that I’ve never done anything else in my career. I’ve always been an oncology nurse. Really, this isn’t a job. This is who I am.”

She does admit oncology nursing requires a tremendous amount of compassion, “but if anything, I’m empathetic to a fault. That’s just my emotional makeup. Though, if there’s something that makes this work, I’d say it’s that I give my patients empathy, but I don’t always give them sympathy, if that makes sense. I want to pull them on through their path or journey, and sometimes that isn’t simple.”

Career in caring
Just 25 years old at the start of her UCI nursing career in 1981, Boyle opened the Chao center in 1992. She was instrumental in the development of UCI’s Women’s Enhancement Center and the Child Life Center (concerned respectively with women and children cancer patients’ special needs); she also established the Outpatient Infusion Center and an on-site patient authorization unit to address financial impediments to care.

Boyle’s subspecialty is gynecologic oncology health care, specifically ovarian cancer; she’s served as the nurse contact for the ovarian committee of the Gynecologic Oncology Group, a cooperative component of the National Cancer Institute. She has worked as a research nurse in all gynecologic malignancies and taught as a medical surgical educator while raising her two children, Emily Ann, now 22, and Patrick Bradley, 21, as a single mother.

“My children have had to learn to share me with my patients at all hours of the day and night.”

Boyle is a dedicated dervish but claims there isn’t any other way to nurse cancer patients. It’s a specialty and calling she found at age 21, while a student nurse on rotations in a 48-bed cancer ward at a large Chicago teaching hospital. On that ward, she found the resolve to use her humanity in both caring for her patients and in grieving their loss.

“I was very attached to a patient there named Margaret. I really learned to love her,” says Boyle, whose own mother dreamed of being a nurse but didn’t have the education or opportunity. [Her mother and father, 85 and 88, respectively, attended the Oct. 21  medal ceremony at the Bren Events Center.]

“After Margaret died, I went to a priest and told him, ‘I think I need to get out of oncology.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ I started crying and said, ‘It’s so painful that I lost her.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Julie, you don’t need to get out of this, you need to stay in it. And it’s OK to love. You’ll meet many patients throughout your life, and because you’re you, you will always give them good care. Then you’ll meet certain ones, and you’ll really connect with them. And with those patients, it’s OK to cry with them, and it’s all right to cry with their families.’ He gave me permission to be open to my humanness and not shut it down.”

Her own recent battle with a brain tumor has deepened the connection Boyle shares with her patients. She had a freak accident when a paint can fell on top of her head, and a brain scan for the resulting concussion detected a small benign tumor. She had a craniotomy and she’s now “almost back” to 100 percent.

“It’s been tough. It put me on the other side of the bed rail, but I firmly believe that all my angel-patients above somehow got the paint can to hit me on my head. They were looking out for me. The tumor was benign, and I’ve recovered. I’m luckier than most of my patients. But it was scary.”

Ever on call
Managing fear is one of an oncology nurse’s greatest challenges, and in typical Boyle fashion her doors are always open to anxious patients. “I’ve always given my home phone, pager and now my cell phone number to patients, and I tell them to call me whenever they need me. People tell me I’m crazy, but in nearly three decades not one patient has ever abused the privilege. When people are in fear, they need to speak immediately and directly with someone, not talk to an operator or stranger who may or may not care.

“What I tell them is, ‘Let me shoulder the burden of telling you when to worry and when not to worry about recurrent disease. After all, what is the point of living if you live your life in fear?’”