MILES CITY — “Like mother, like daughter” definitely applies to Mary Margaret Friend and her daughter Katie Donnelly.

Both women are oncology nurses in Miles City. They readily speak of their admiration for each other.

And now the two have a job in common. With Friend retiring after nearly 38 years at Holy Rosary Healthcare, most recently as outpatient chemotherapy manager, Donnelly will take over the post.

“I thought she’d be perfect for the job,” Friend said of her daughter. “She’s compassionate and caring and smart, and everybody I run into loves Katie. She’s the best.”

In an interview with her mother at the Miles City hospital, Donnelly joked that while she’ll be filling big shoes, “I know where she lives.”

“And I’ve learned a lot from her,” she said of her mother, growing serious. “I’ve modeled my nursing career on how I’ve seen her provide patient care. Over the course of my life, she’s been my mentor.”

Donnelly’s move into the job comes at an exciting time for the oncology infusion area at the Miles City hospital. Just this week a $1.1 million project launched that will renovate and slightly increase the size of the outpatient center where cancer patients come for their chemotherapy.

Paul Lewis, president of Holy Rosary Healthcare, called the remodeling a significant project, both as an upgrade of a physical space and a way to boost its regional relationship and patient continuity with St. Vincent Healthcare and St. James Healthcare, all part of SCL Health.

Holy Rosary Healthcare President Paul Lewis talks about the $1.1 million remodel of the outpatient chemotherapy center. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

It will have six treatment bays and a private treatment room, plus another private room for wound care. A nurse’s station will be placed near the treatment area, and the center will include an expanded patient registration area and an updated waiting room.

Lewis also appreciates the continuity that will come with Friend handing off the baton to Donnelly.

“The legacy and the great care that Mary Margaret has provided for years at Holy Rosary is really central to the care that we provide,” he said. “We appreciate her great commitment to patients she’s cared for over the years, and it’s great that we have Katie to carry that forward into the future.”

The outpatient chemotherapy center at Holy Rosary Healthcare is undergoing a $1.1 million renovation.  CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Legacy

Friend, 69, the mother of five, started working at Holy Rosary in 1980, when Katie was 6 months old. At various times she worked in the ICU, in the emergency department, in cardiac rehab and in oncology. She went full time in 1995 in oncology, when the hospital moved into a new building and consolidated all of its services.

That’s also when Drs. Patrick Cobb and Marty Lucas, oncologists with the St. Vincent Healthcare's Frontier Cancer Center, starting making monthly trips to Holy Rosary. It allowed patients to remain in Miles City for chemotherapy and related treatments.

That meant long days for Friend and fellow nurse Mary Jo Stein.

“We were both working 12-hour days with no lunch breaks,” Friend said. “It was kind of crazy, but little by little we picked up more staff.”

Over the years, Friend saw advances in cancer treatment, which improved the outlook for patients and made their course of treatment easier. Among them, she said, were anti-nausea medications and targeted therapy that zeroed in on cancer cells and didn't take “all the good things with it, like your hair.”

What never changed was her respect and care for the people she served.

“I love what I do,” Friend said. “Not everybody gets cured, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the people and the pleasure of being able to walk through the journey with them, good or bad.”

She calls chemotherapy patients “extraordinary people” imbued with hope and a kind of joy.

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“You can’t help but be better when you’re around them,” Friend said. “I truly have gained more from them than they have from me.”

She acknowledged the stress people diagnosed with cancer feel and talked about a friend who came in for treatment. The woman’s husband was “very nervous, very protective and scared to death.”

But during her friend’s first chemotherapy session, there was laughter and smiles. The patient’s husband asked if it was going to be like that every time, and Friend, worried that he didn’t think she was taking the situation seriously enough, said she didn’t think so.

“He said ‘I hope it is,’ ” Friend said.

'The real deal'

Donnelly said whenever she mentions her mom’s name around town, people tell her how much they love her.

“In nursing you have to have some sort of compassion, but this is different,” Donnelly said. “She does more for any patient than I’ve seen. If you ask her patients, they’d say the same.”

After Donnelly’s first year of college, she decided to follow her mother’s footsteps and earn a nursing degree. Her mother’s passion for oncology sparked Donnelly's own interest in the specialty.

After graduating from Montana State University in 2002, Donnelly’s first job was on the oncology floor at St. Vincent Healthcare. She worked there a couple of years, but admits it wasn’t easy.

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Cancer patients in outpatient settings have more possibility of a positive outcome.

“There’s not as many celebrations when you’re inpatient,” she said.

Love drew her back to Miles City.

“There was a boy, and he didn’t want to live in Billings,” Donnelly said.

She applied for a job as an oncology nurse with Billings Clinic in Miles City, and was hired. She worked there for about 12 ½ years, until the opportunity for the manager position came up at Holy Rosary.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Donnelly enjoyed working for Billings Clinic and she liked her patients. But gradually she realized it was an opportunity that might not come around again.

She began her new job in November. Friend couldn’t have been happier.

“It has truly been my greatest pleasure to work with her,” Friend said of her daughter. “When she first came over in November it was wonderful to watch her interact with patients.”

Friend said Donnelly is exactly what the hospital needs at this time.

“She’s got fresh ideas, she’s energetic and smart,” Friend said. “She’s the real deal.”

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Cobb, who worked with Friend for 23 years, described her as a tremendous partner to work with in caring for cancer patients in Eastern Montana.

“She is very straightforward, she’s incredibly compassionate,” he said. “She’s seen people go through this so she knows the worries they have, the things they’re concerned about. As a result, she can relate to people really well.”

Cobb, who worked with Donnelly during her tenure at St. Vincent Healthcare, said she is “an incredibly hard worker.” She’ll carry on her mother’s legacy, he said.

Cobb also joked that Friend has great foresight.

“What great planning to create your replacement 30-some years ago,” he said.