Issaquah nurse inspires patients, military service members
August 23, 2011
By Laura Geggel
Joelle Machia has two passions: cancer research and supporting the U.S. armed forces.
Standing 6 feet, 1 inch, Machia (pronounced may-she) is charismatic, caring and in charge, especially when she talks about preventing cancer or sending packages overseas to her adopted Marines or soldiers.
The longtime Issaquah resident knew as a teenager that nursing was her calling.
Her parents emigrated from France and raised their brood of four — Machia the oldest — in New Jersey, speaking French all the while. Machia didn’t speak English until age 6, but her bilingualism soon blossomed.
By age 14, she began volunteering as a candy striper at a local hospital.
“I loved it,” she said, “I knew right away I wanted to be a nurse.”
After high school, she moved south of Philadelphia to earn her degree in nursing and behavioral sciences.
“During those years, I started my fascination with cancer, because I’ve known people who had been impacted,” she said. “I got lucky enough to get a summer internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City. I was 20 years old. It was amazing.”
Nursing children with cancer
After working on the pediatric oncology floor, she knew she had found her path.
“I’ve always adored children,” she said. “I’m good with them, I enjoy them, I can talk to them and I can be on their level. I just find there is a passion in children and an honesty and an openness in children that I really enjoy.”
She married her high school sweetheart in 1984, and the two moved to California, her husband working as an engineer and Machia nursing cancer patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Her team ran the hospital’s first bone marrow transplant unit, an experience Machia called “amazing.”
When the time came to have children, Machia and her husband decided to leave the fun, but materialistic and expensive Los Angeles, opting instead for Issaquah’s Tiger Mountain in 1985.
“We fell in love with Issaquah,” she said. “Our children were raised here. We did all of the community sports. I love the way it’s grown. It still has a sense of community.”
At first, Machia worked with hospice care patients, a seemingly complete turn from her work with children, but the two were similar under the surface.
“When I was dealing with kids in L.A., I dealt with a lot of kids who were very seriously ill, so we lost a lot of them,” she said. “So I was comfortable in that mode. I was comfortable to help the families in the best way you could in those situations.”
After the birth of her daughter, Machia worked at various medical centers, including with Swedish Medical Center’s pediatric bone marrow transplant team.
“Our patient-nurse ratio was often 1-to-2 or 1-to-1,” she said. “So you really got to know these families. They were there for months.”
At Swedish, she worked with doctors and patients from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, so her next career move was merely a step away.
Preventing cancer at the ‘Hutch’
As a mother of two, she no longer wanted to work the evening shift at Swedish, so Machia applied to work as a clinical research nurse at the Hutch.
She has been there ever since, and is celebrating her 20th anniversary at the Hutch this summer.
Again, she changed age groups, this time caring for adult breast cancer patients.
“The position was for a whole new area of research we were going into, from the federal level even: cancer prevention,” she said. “I was involved in one of the first large-scale breast cancer prevention trials ever done in the country.”
Machia worked with women who had a high risk for developing breast cancer, giving them the drug Tamoxifen or a placebo. Tamoxifen worked well. Patients taking the drug were 49 percent less likely to develop invasive breast cancer (cancer that spreads to surrounding healthy tissues) and 45 percent less likely to get noninvasive breast cancer.
She praised her patients for participating in clinical research. About 5 percent of patients with cancer agree to cancer clinical trials, she said.
“Those 5 percent are determining how we are going to treat and cure this disease and eradicate this disease for everybody else,” she said. “Without these people doing research, we’re not going to improve. We’re not going to save lives.”
One of those women, Mary Elizabeth Stritmatter, of Hoquiam, has known Machia for more than 10 years. Stritmatter considers herself at high risk for breast cancer, since her mother, sister, grandmother and other relatives have died from the disease.
She sees Machia once a year for a trial comparing Tamoxifen to Raloxifene, another preventative drug.
“I went in to ask about the study and she met with me personally,” Stritmatter said. “She just spent so much time, as opposed to handing the information in pamphlets, and asked about me and who I was and about my family and my interests. It was a very personal kind of relationship that started from the very beginning because she took the time.”
Though the two meet only once a year, Machia remembers details about Stritmatter’s life, and asks about her family. The nurse also shares episodes of her life with her patients.
“I know about her kids and where she’s been and what she’s doing,” Stritmatter said. “And that’s purely because she takes the time to talk to us.”
Sending postcards and care packages
When she’s not caring for patients, reviewing or auditing how the Hutch and other centers handle clinical trials, Machia volunteers at Sea-Tac Airport with the United Service Organization.
For four hours every week, she helps men and women in the military in every way possible. She makes them meals, connects them to flights or shuttles, passes on orders from their commanders or chats with them and their families.
“She provides a safe haven for military travelers,” said Shirley McGann, Sea-Tac USO center manager. “She comes every single week even though she has a full-time career.”
Machia also joined Soldier’s Angels, a nonprofit organization that pairs people with those serving in the U.S. Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. She has already “adopted” six men, sending them postcards and care packages weekly. One of her adoptees, Cpl. Tuan Nguyen, is serving in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. He signed up for Soldiers’ Angels on the recommendation of a friend, and doesn’t regret it.
“I think me and Joelle talk just about every day through emails, care packages and letters,” he wrote in an email from Afghanistan. “It’s almost too much, but somehow I am able to keep up!”
He called her correspondence a “morale booster.”
“Every time a package arrives in the mail it’s almost like Christmas and I can’t wait to open them up to see what this one has got in store for me,” he wrote. “I recently had my birthday out here and Joelle preplanned this party in a box with party materials and gifts, probably one of my best days out here that I will remember forever.”
Machia said she has incredible respect for men and women who risk their lives for the nation. She hopes to offer support to as many people as she can, be they cancer patients or serving their country.
“I can’t see myself not working,” she said.