Human Handheld Navigation System Provides Crucial Support, Compassion for Columbia St. Marys Cancer Patients

Friday, May 26, 2006

Milwaukee – April 15, 2006 - At Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital they are called Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialists, but to CSM cancer patients, they are more like human handheld navigation systems, guiding patients through the daunting web of cancer treatment.

Depending on the type of cancer and stage of diagnosis, it is common for patients to undergo diagnostic tests, procedures and surgeries, and meet with an entire team of nurses and doctors, all in a fairly short period of time. With each step, patients must make decisions about their care and also figure how to communicate with their families about their disease.

“It’s overwhelming to most patients,” said Patricia Quinn-Casper, RN, one of the patient navigators. “Patients have to not only come to terms with the fact that they have a chronic illness, they must also begin to learn and interpret an entire new vocabulary of cancer terms, drugs and procedures.”

At CSM, from the moment a new patient enters the Cancer Institute for his or her first visit to the time they are cured, a nurse is either at their side the entire time, or available by phone or page to answer any question or help explain test results, drug side effects, or pros and cons of surgery. Or, to just listen.

“I’ll never forget one patient who just asked me for a hug,” said Theresa Murphy, RN.

Few patients needed this support and guidance more than Carolyn Smith. The 52-year old Milwaukee resident had already experienced enough tragedy for several lives. Her four brothers had all been murdered and her sister had died of cancer at age 45.

“After I had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year I had gotten so concerned about getting chemotherapy and losing my hair, I thought I was going to have stroke,” Smith said. “I was very upset after going through radiation but Patricia (Quinn-Casper) came down to talk to me and stayed with me the rest of the appointment. She made me laugh and feel at ease and she was with me every time I came back for radiation.”

CNS staff spends about 80 percent of their time with patients and family members – providing education, explaining various procedures and treatment options as well as providing treatment. Typical certified nurse specialists tend to spend a larger portion of their time on more administrative matters.

This model allows the patient navigators to spend more time with patients like Carolyn Smith, who was reluctant to accept treatment at first. However, the CSM staff was patient with her and listened to her concerns and gradually convinced her to begin treatment for her breast cancer.

CSM developed the clinical nurse specialist position after patients told staff they wanted more education about cancer treatments and better explanations about the therapies cancer patients receive. From this initiative, the Certified Nurse Specialists were born.

CNS navigators may get called in to provide support to a patient who is having a mass or a tumor removed in the colon, for instance. In these cases, the nurses can provide additional information to the family about the test or procedure and draw upon the CSM support system to help the patient and family.

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it turns their world upside down,” said Dr. Carl Olsen, director of Radiation Oncology at Columbia St. Mary’s. “Nurse navigators help patients and families turn their world right side up again. They understand that cancer information and treatment is confusing and that there is a connection between mind, body and spirit.”

Smith eventually became comfortable enough with Quinn-Casper to open up and share details of her life. During this time, Smith developed a connection with other patients too.

For Smith, the patient navigators have made a world of difference. From reluctant patient just weeks ago, Smith has now signed up to be a volunteer in the Cancer Institute, helping other patients deal with their cancer.

“I connected pretty well with the other patients and eventually Patricia asked me if I would be interested in becoming a volunteer after my radiation treatments were over,” Smith said.

Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialists Susan Westlake, RN; Patricia Quinn-Casper, RN; and Theresa Murphy, RN all serve as cancer patient advocates for all CSM cancer patients.

About Columbia St. Mary’s
Columbia St. Mary's is comprised of four hospitals: Columbia St. Mary's Hospital Milwaukee, Columbia St. Mary's Columbia Campus, Columbia St. Mary's Hospital Ozaukee, and Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Institute, as well as 28 primary care clinics, the Columbia College of Nursing, a partnership with the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, the new River Woods Outpatient Center in Glendale, and new Urgent Care Center in downtown Milwaukee. The system serves individuals and families in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, and Washington counties, with more than 158 years of service. In 2006, Columbia St. Mary’s was named a Solucient Top 100 Hospital. Columbia St. Mary's and its sponsor organizations, Ascension Health and Columbia Health System, share a mission to make a positive difference in the health status and lives of individuals in the community with a special concern for those who are vulnerable.  


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