VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System
Mother finds healing by honoring VA nurses
When National Guardsman Sgt. Andrew Wilcox moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado in October 2018, his eyes were set on a path in CU Boulder's Aerospace Engineering Sciences program. The guardsman was ready to become a pilot. Eventually, an astronaut.
But by April 2019, he fell ill with what felt like the flu. After visiting the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center (RMR) in Aurora, he discovered he had cancer.
“Okay, how do we deal with it?” his mother, Sara Wilcox, recalled him asking with a positive outlook. He was beginning a 14-month battle against a metastasizing cancer that would require various treatments, specialty care, and lengthy stays at seven hospitals across the country; however, where Sara said her son felt most at home was with the nursing care team at RMR.
"I want to draw attention to Andrew’s team and honor their exemplary efforts, as well as motivate students of today to become nurses for tomorrow." Sara Wilcox
Between surgeries, procedures, and stretches on a ventilator, the cancer battle became one of the most traumatizing experiences of Sara’s life, but she felt relieved by the nursing care team fighting with him.
"Andrew kept asking to return to Aurora where he felt most confident and comfortable with his care. He'd say, ‘Take me back to Aurora. That's where my family is.”
An uncommon patient seen among Veterans at the VA hospital—a young man still in uniform, the RMR nursing team fought with Andrew Wilcox from day one.
“Within minutes of meeting him, I let him know he would probably need to be put on a ventilator because he was working so hard to breathe,” said Registered Nurse Amanda Chute who provided several months of care to Andrew in the intensive care unit. “Unfortunately, I was right.”
While he spent much of that period on a ventilator, she said “I could tell he was a fighter.”
Chute described Wilcox as “resilient.” Even after the former powerlifter lost more than 50 pounds in four weeks, he refused negativity while navigating a life-threatening illness.
“Even if the odds were stacked against him, if there was any chance of pulling through it was a good enough reason to try,” Chute added.
Long-time Oncology Certified Nurse Mary Turowski recalled his insistence to know every person and tool in his fight and his consistent smile: “Andrew taught me the power of listening, allowing patients to always be a part of the team and not to be afraid of smiling and laughing.”
As her first experience in a VA hospital, Sara Wilcox was impressed by the partnership and felt included in every decision, acknowledging the concurrent hurdles of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They were gentle when it was needed and aggressive with his care when needed,” she said.
At 28, Andrew Wilcox died in July 2020 at the same hospital where it all began. Alongside his mother, RMR staff honored the Soldier with a final salute and a moment of silence.
“It was an honor and a privilege to meet him and his family and I will never forget him or the lessons he taught me,” Chute said.
Through the loss, Sara Wilcox wanted a way to honor a passionate team that made a devastating experience a little easier.
While Andrew Wilcox was never able to fulfill his academic dreams, his mother formed Andy’s Army Scholarship Fund, ensuring his legacy will encourage others. The fund honors RMR nurses by inspiring Southwest Pennsylvanian high schoolers entering the nursing profession.
“My goal is two-fold with this scholarship. I want to draw attention to Andrew’s team and honor their exemplary efforts, as well as motivate students of today to become nurses for tomorrow. I wanted the world to know that this team went above and beyond and are role models for all health care workers.”