For Bonnie Hunt, Laughter Heals
By Idelle Davidson
Bonnie Hunt grew up among family members she describes as caregivers and storytellers. So her choice of professions—oncology nurse, writer, director, actress—should come as no surprise. Hunt, now 36, still remembers playing “audience” to her three sisters and three brothers in their bustling childhood home on the northwest side of Chicago.
“They have a great sense of humor and were always very entertaining,” Bonnie recalls. “I was always admiring them.” Her father, Bob, an electrician, and mother, Alice, a homemaker, encouraged that playfulness by weaving rich tales for the kids. “I think that’s what led me to show business and the art of storytelling,” Bonnie muses.
She dreamed of becoming a writer and an actress. But Bonnie’s father, whom she adored, encouraged her to become a nurse. He said “acting is a nice hobby, but you should choose one other thing that you love.” For Bonnie it was nursing. She was already working after school as a nurse’s aide in a home for the elderly. Before that she had spent all her teenage summers volunteering as a candy striper at a local hospital.
Ultimately, Bonnie feels her her mother helped her make a career decision. “My grandmother came to live with us when she was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and my mother took care of her,” recalls Bonnie. “It was an emotional and beautiful experience for my six siblings and me. My mother’s kindness and unending patience was so moving. My grandmother died in comfort and with dignity. Having observed my mother’s caregiving was my inspiration to to become nurse.”
But she didn’t give up her other dream. She planned to act in neighborhood plays during her time away from the hospital. Still, one of Bonnie’s fondest memories of this period was her father’s unstoppable pride as she began nursing school. “I’d be sitting watching TV in a sweatshirt and jeans and my father would tell me to put on my nursing cap, go out in the backyard, and wave to a neighbor,” says Bonnie.
Then tragically, her father died suddenly of a heart attack, just as she began her nursing program. “I didn’t want to continue school,” says Bonnie. “I remember being so angry that he died, mad at God. I cried to my mother, ‘Dad’s not going to he here to see me graduate, so I’m going to quit.” Her mother gently suggested Bonnie give school one more week, and if after that she wanted to quit, they would talk about it.
Fate intervened that very week. As a new-student nurse, she was assigned to take care of a terminally ill patient with metastatic cancer.
“His name was Mr. O’Brien,” says Bonnie. “He told me his cancer diagnosis gave him the opportunity to say goodbye to his loved ones. He went on to speak very highly of a man he had worked with who was not given the same opportunity, that this wonderful family man he knew died very suddenly of a heart attack.” At first, neither Bonnie nor Mr. O’Brien knew he was speaking of Bonnie’s father. Once they made the connection they held hands and had a good cry. “I didn’t want to leave his side,” says Bonnie. “I decided to stay in school.”
From Practical Nursing school Bonnie went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and her Registered Nurse certification. She worked as an emergency room nurse at several hospitals and then went to work as a “float” nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Eventually she was assigned to an oncology ward. That’s where she met her physician mentors—Steven Rosen (who now heads the inTouch Advisory Board), Leo Gordon, and Merrill Kics. She was smitten.
“I just worshipped those guys,” says Bonnie. “They are so completely dedicated, intelligent, and emotional about their work. To me that’s the mark of a good doctor. I call them the ‘combo platter’ doctor.”
The doctors seemed impressed with her as well. They eventually promoted her to supervisor of the oncology department.
“From the first day I worked there I believed that my ultimate responsibility was to show the utmost respect for the patient,” says Bonnie.
And oddly enough, the patients were the ones who encouraged Bonnie to pursue her other dreams of becoming a writer and an actress. One patient with head and neck cancer told her she should never fear failure since he had no fear of death.
“How can you argue with that?” Bonnie asks. So with her patients rooting for her, Bonnie would run to auditions during her lunch hour.
Still nursing full-time, Bonnie wrote and performed at Chicago’s famed Second City Theatre in Chicago. Her patients and their families would all come to the shows to urge her on.
“You’d always know my people in the audience,” says Bonnie. “They were the ones with the bandanas covering their balding heads, and they wore big, proud smiles,” she says. “I found those nights so inspiring, seeing them in the audience, laughing, having a good time and forgetting for a moment that they have cancer.”
PART OF HER HEART
At Christmas time, the Second City troupe would perform at the hospital. “We would have all the patients brought into the solarium, sometimes with the whole bed,” she says. Some patients were so proud of Bonnie’s progress they would cut her theater reviews out of the paper and tape them to their bedside table.
Almost 3 years after that first day as an oncology nurse at Northwestern, Bonnie said goodbye to the doctors and patients who were also her friends.
Explaining why she left nursing for acting, she says, “I never gave it up in my heart. Like so many people, cancer has touched the lives of many of my family and friends. I can hold their hand, share an inspirational story, and listen. That was always my favorite part of being a nurse. I never have to give that up.” But she also found she could touch people in different ways through writing and acting. “I knew one of my strongest connections with patients was through humor,” says Bonnie. She has since acted in over 20 films.
Bonnie was the first woman to create, write, and star in her own sitcom—two of them, in fact, both well received by critics: The Building and The Bonnie Hunt Show. Movie-goers know Bonnie for her roles in such films as Jerry Maguire, Jumanji, and family films Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd.
Bonnie recently completed filming Random Hearts with Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas. And in the newly released The Green Mile, she plays opposite Tom Hanks in a 1935 drama set in the South.
Perhaps her most exciting venture is Return to Me, a film she co-wrote, directs, and stars in with David Duchovny, Minnie Driver, and Carroll O’Connor. The film is due in theaters this coming spring.
Bonnie uses both her nursing background and her sense of humor in Return to Me. The story revolves around a young woman (Minnie Driver) who waits desperately for a heart transplant. As Minnie lays in her hospital bed, Bonnie (as her best friend Megan) jokes that she is going to unplug a few of the machines because she needs one of the outlets to use her blow dryer. Minnie laughs, forgetting her diagnosis for a moment. As she finally falls asleep, Bonnie quietly sits at her bedside, praying.
The movie draws on Bonnie’s humor and the very real emotion that gripped her in her nursing days, as she held the hands of patients and helped them express their fears. These things never leave her, she says.
“Cancer patients are graceful heroes,” says Bonnie. “They and the doctors—my buddies, Dr. Rosen, Dr. Gordon, and Dr. Kies—and the wonderful nurses I was fortunate enough to work with will always be an inspiration for me. And for that I am very grateful.”