By Carmen K. Sisson/The Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS – Betty Price doesn’t remember much about that April morning at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. She remembers the pain and the way she couldn’t stop crying. She remembers sitting next to her husband, Otis Price, and learning that her persistent cough was not pneumonia – it was lung cancer.
Most of all, she remembers how Oncology Nurse Navigator Amanda Mordecai wrapped her arms around her and held her until the sobs ceased.
Mordecai is part of a growing trend: Registered nurses specially trained in cancer care and assigned the task of streamlining every aspect of a patient’s cancer experience, from diagnosis to treatment.
Nurse navigators “navigate” the sometimes confusing array of paperwork and prescriptions, appointments and options, helping patients make sense of it all. Thanks to a grant by Baptist Memorial Healthcare, Mordecai’s position was created in March. Baptist’s hospitals in Oxford and Memphis each have two nurse navigators.
The movement began in Harlem in 1990, when Dr. Harold P. Freeman noticed the difficulties poor and uninsured cancer patients had accessing treatment. Sometimes simple things like transportation caused patients to miss appointments. Other times, complex issues like poor reading skills, lack of health insurance or lack of family support undermined a patient’s journey.
In 2007, a $2.5 million grant created the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute in New York. Today, officials at the Academy of Oncology Nurse Navigators, based in Monroe Township, N.J., estimates between 2,500 to 3,500 nurses have become nurse navigators.
For Price, having a nurse navigator is a godsend. She said that though Mordecai gave her some pamphlets, she didn’t read all of them. She read a few. And yet, every step of the way, she knows what to expect.
Five days a week, she undergoes radiation therapy. Once a week, she spends two and a half to three hours in chemotherapy. The tumor on her lung, which she said was “the size of a grapefruit,” is gone. The pain is gone. More importantly, the fear is gone. And though she lost 50 pounds over the past few months, her appetite is returning.
“I haven’t done much reading about it, I’m just not afraid,” Price said. “Amanda and the doctors … I figure they all know what they’re doing.”
Time may be the most precious thing Mordecai gives, especially in today’s fast-paced, complicated health care climate, said Sean T. Walsh, executive director of the Academy of Oncology Nurse Navigators.
A patient may see five different physicians, all handling different aspects of treatment. Staffs are sometimes short-handed, and while doctors try to answer every question, it helps to have one “point person” to make sure the patient doesn’t get lost in the process.
“In this day and age, with all that’s going on in the health care industry, there’s definitely a need for someone to … coordinate all those different things and make sure the patient moves through the health care system without hitting any barriers.
“It’s a key role that puts the patient first and makes the patient advocate someone embedded in the health care system,” Walsh said.