When Ann Vlahadamis began working as a medical secretary at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute in the 1980s, she had no idea that it would be the beginning of a distinguished and long career in oncology. After graduating from high school, Vlahadamis had enrolled in a medical terminology course to prepare her for a future in health care. She didn’t know it yet, but one of her teachers was about to ignite her passion – and introduce her to a place that would change the course of her future.
“I had a teacher who promoted the Cross, who told us that we should come and work here,” she says. “I don’t know what her connection to it was, but she said it was a great place to work. And she was right.”
While working in the department of radiation oncology, Vlahadamis was inspired by the excellence in care that she saw every day. She eventually enrolled in a nursing program to take the next step in her career and upon graduation she returned to the Cross to continue pushing the hospital’s quality of care forward.
That was just the beginning of Vlahadamis’s work in oncology. After working at the Cross for one year as a nurse, she moved to Vancouver to further her education, broaden her horizons and start a family. But after a decade in British Columbia, she returned to Edmonton with her sights set once again on working at the Cross. “I’ve just been so fortunate, and have been able to surround myself with such excellent practitioners here. Of course I came back,” she says.
While at the Cross she was presented with the opportunity to pursue her master’s degree in nursing, which would qualify her to become a nurse practitioner. She continued to work throughout her schooling, applying her newly obtained knowledge to the systems and practices in place.
Now, after nearly 30 years of honing her expertise in oncology, Vlahadamis is a nationally recognized leader in the field. In 2015, she was awarded not only the Pfizer Award for Excellence in Nursing Clinical Practice by the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology, but she was also named a Friend of Pharmacy by the Alberta College of Pharmacists for her work in creating collaborative patient care models. Over the last several years, Vlahadamis has worked closely with a number of pharmacists and pharmacy residents, inviting them to become directly involved in patient care.
“She enjoys working with others, and she’s interested in not only what works for the patients but also what works from a collaborative sense across roles,” says long-time friend and colleague Krista Rawson. “She’s thinking about what’s happening in the tumour groups, or in the health-care system in a way that is very creative and collaborative.”
“What I really strive to do is collaborate with others – I don’t just stick to nursing colleagues. I really enjoy practising with the physicians and pharmacists. You can’t do this on your own,” Vlahadamis says. “Everybody needs to work together, and the end result is always with the patient in mind. There are challenges, but it’s your team that gets you by.”
This collaborative spirit and creative approach to medicine has had a major impact on her colleagues, and on patients’ experiences. “Ann is somebody who’s always striving to further her knowledge, which enables her to provide better-quality, more well-rounded care. She’s driven by a desire for awareness and understanding,” says Rawson, who now works with Vlahadamis as a senior practice consultant for advance practice nursing at AHS.
Throughout her career, Vlahadamis’s thirst for knowledge has never slowed. In 2009, she began working with the Northern Alberta Breast Cancer Program, and turned a critical eye to the practices in place. Though her new role was challenging, it was an engaging area where Vlahadamis could make use of her expertise. “The hallmark of a good nurse practitioner is somebody who works themselves out of a job. Somebody who continues to improve something. And that’s Ann,” says Rawson. “She’s not somebody who rests. She’s constantly questioning the way we work to make it better.”
As part of her position in the breast cancer program, Vlahadamis worked closely with a clinical pharmacist to create a group medical clinic for patients. Prior to the development of this group model, breast cancer patients who were eligible for endocrine therapy would meet individually with physicians to learn about treatment options. For physicians, this meant largely repetitive workloads and busy schedules, but for patients this often meant long wait times and limited contact with physicians.
“With patients, I was just giving the same information back to back to back… It was taking a lot of time,” Vlahadamis says. “As a team we just decided there was a better way to do things.”
So they spearheaded group clinics, run bimonthly with Vlahadamis and a clinical pharmacist who would provide an hour-long information session for up to 12 patients at a time. Following the session, Vlahadamis would follow up individually with half of the patients to answer personal questions, while the clinical pharmacist would work individually with the other half. Through the clinics, the breast cancer team was able to save time for both oncologists and patients. The group model also provided an opportunity for patients to connect and develop support networks where stories and advice could be shared in an understanding atmosphere.
Dr. Karen King, medical oncologist and chair of the breast cancer program, worked closely with Vlahadamis throughout her time with the program. “Ann is an excellent and innovative nurse, teacher and mentor,” says King. “She’s a great resource for oncologists, and takes incredible care of our patients. It’s not easy to pass on the care of patients that you have looked after for many years, but I never had any reservations about putting my patients in Ann’s care.”
After more than five years working with the breast cancer group, Vlahadamis made the difficult decision to move into a new field of practice. Now working with a team that treats lung tumours, Ann has the opportunity to evaluate and enhance the level of care offered to patients living with lung cancer.
“I would like to create a similar program with the lung group, and I’m really optimistic that I can make some positive changes to make care more efficient for patients and my colleagues,” she says. Vlahadamis recognizes the challenges faced by newly diagnosed patients, and hopes that in her new role she’ll be able to create more comprehensible, supportive services for patients. “Sometimes when you see a new patient in a clinic, you can see the look where they’re not processing information anymore – at that point, patients need a break, and need to wait until their next appointment to learn more,” she says. “Patients need reassurance that their care provider will be available to them for ongoing support and reassurance, that they’ll communicate honestly, address their concerns and answer questions. I imagine developing a program in my new role to address supportive care needs of both patients and their families. This may or may not be a “group format” but it will be collaborative.”
Vlahadamis also leads an exemplary life outside of work. Outside of the hospital walls, she is a devoted mother, dedicated wife and active community member. With two sons, both avid hockey fans, Vlahadamis is constantly on the go. She is also an eager participant in Bust a Move, the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s annual fitness fundraiser for breast cancer. Through her work and her involvement in the community, she is an inspiration to many.
“You can have a great career, but life is about so many other things,” says Rawson. “Ann just really exemplifies what it’s like to have balance in life.”