From Fighting for His Life to Helping Save Others’
Ben Hocutt gives new meaning to the term “triple Dukie.”
Technically he has only one Duke degree under his belt. But one could argue that the former pediatrics patient, current Duke nurse, and recent graduate of Duke’s master of science in nursing (MSN) degree program has earned an interesting, if not unique, spot among Duke’s most loyal learners and supporters.
Hocutt has spent the majority of his 10 years at Duke working as a critical care nurse and says he couldn’t imagine doing anything else, anywhere else. Even though his first encounter with Duke wasn’t under the best circumstances, his time as a cancer patient at Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center certainly played a role in steering him toward the career of his dreams.
Back in 1996, at age 12, the Rocky Mount, N.C., native was diagnosed with a rare, soft tissue cancer called leiomyosarcoma. For months, Hocutt had experienced strange symptoms that involved vomiting in the middle of the night while feeling completely normal during the day.
After his pediatrician was unable to pinpoint what was wrong, Hocutt’s mother, a nurse, insisted her son be referred to Duke. Once there, tests revealed a large tumor that had engulfed Hocutt’s gall bladder, liver, pancreas, and stomach. A biopsy further showed that the tumor was malignant.
Even before anyone told him the news, it didn’t take long for young Hocutt to figure out his condition was quite serious. Being left alone in the hospital room with his younger brother while his parents and doctors talked in another room was a telltale sign. Later, hearing the words “tumor” and “cancer” was almost impossible for the middle-schooler to process.
“Two of my grandparents had died of cancer,” Hocutt says. “I had never known anyone to survive it.”
Soft tissue cancers like leiomyosarcoma are often resistant to chemotherapy, and in Hocutt’s case, undergoing radiation could possibly lead to paralysis, so surgery was the only option for him. Fortunately, surgeons were able to successfully remove the tumor during a 10-hour operation.
Although it was a difficult time, Hocutt’s memories of that time center less on his recovery and more on how it impacted his family. “It was a big upheaval in our family life,” he says. “It affected my mom, my dad, and my younger brother spent the entire summer being shuffled around.”
Hocutt says he no longer remembers most of their names, but he also will never forget how his doctors and nurses made him feel. He not only left Duke University Hospital healed, but his time as a patient also reaffirmed his love of science and medicine. A self-described “biology nerd,” Hocutt says he always knew a career in health care would be in his future. Only, at the time, he was convinced he’d be a doctor, specifically a surgeon like the one who removed his tumor. Or perhaps an anesthesiologist.
It wasn’t until many years later that his mother suggested nursing to him. Once he enrolled in a nursing program at a Central Carolina Community College in Sanford after high school, he was forever hooked on nursing. By the time he got his first job in critical care, he knew he’d truly found his calling.
“I like the interaction I get to have with patients when they’re at their most critical state,” Hocutt explains. “It takes a lot of skill and specialized knowledge to be a critical care nurse. Not everyone can do it, but I can’t imagine being in any other part of the hospital.”
Hocutt also holds a BSN degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But in recent years, his desire to work at his fullest potential as a nurse led him to pursue an MSN degree from Duke University School of Nursing’s Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner program.
His advanced degree will certainly help him be a better nurse, but Hocutt also recognizes that his time at Duke Children’s nearly 20 years ago gave him a few lessons that no nursing school can teach.
“It definitely has given me perspective,” he says. For example, he says he knows what it’s like to first wake up on a ventilator right after surgery. “I remember having that feeling of waking up and not knowing where you are and not being able to see your family. That perspective helps when talking to the patient and helping them calm down.”
Such perspective also came in handy for Hocutt when he volunteered a few years ago as a camp counselor at Camp Kaleidoscope, a residential camp for children treated at Duke Children’s. A Camp Kaleidoscope alum himself, Hocutt was able ease the fears of a group of boy campers who were nervous about swimming without shirts.
“I took my shirt off, and showed them that my stomach is riddled with scars. They thought it was great having a counselor who could identify with them.”
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Duke Nursing Magazine.