When Tammy Koch’s grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, she saw first-hand how having a strong support system could help a cancer patient. Her grandfather moved from Holden, Alta., to Spruce Grove to live with Koch and her family, a move that helped to lessen his financial and social stresses and gave him much needed companionship during his cancer journey. Years later, when the opportunity to work in cancer care presented itself to Koch, she took it, knowing she could make others’ cancer experiences as positive as the one her grandfather had.
Similarly, when several members of Carolyn Murphy’s family were touched by the disease, Murphy witnessed them struggle to understand the medical jargon, and saw how they often felt confused and lost throughout their illness. A career helping cancer patients was a logical choice — Murphy wanted to assist them by eliminating that confusion and making them feel at ease.
Today, both Koch and Murphy help to make rural Alberta cancer patients’ experiences a little less overwhelming. They are the only two nurses working at the Hinton Community Cancer Centre, located in the Hinton Healthcare Centre.
According to Koch, as rural nurses they “wear a lot of hats.” Indeed, their roles and responsibilities shift quite a bit throughout a typical work week. Tuesdays through Thursdays, Koch and Murphy serve as oncology nurses in the Hinton Community Cancer Centre, doing patient assessments and administering chemotherapy. But on Mondays and Fridays, both nurses take on a different role in that same centre — that of cancer patient navigator.
Essential for overall patient well-being, Alberta Cancer Foundation Patient Navigators provide support and assistance to patients in any way they’re struggling, whether those struggles are physical, spiritual, psychological or practical.
“If there is anything that is causing patients stress when they’re going through their cancer journey, we want to be able to have some dedicated time to help them through it,” says Murphy, who was initially hired in October 2016 to cover a maternity leave and is now a casual clinic nurse and cancer patient navigator.
For Murphy and Koch, addressing a patient’s stress can mean anything from letting them know what side effects they can expect during treatment (and how to ease those symptoms), to referring them to a mental health expert, to letting them know where they can get financial help or other resources they may need. And sometimes, it just means being there to chat when patients have no one else.
In addition to providing navigation services to patients who visit the Hinton Community Cancer Centre, both nurses also assist patients in Hinton’s catchment area — which includes the towns of Jasper, Edson and Grande Cache — over the phone. As navigators, their commitment to each patient is extensive: it begins at diagnosis and continues right to survivorship or palliative care. Koch and Murphy keep in touch with patients throughout the course of their illness, so patients feel comfortable opening up to them. And the nurses both express how grateful they feel that patients are willing to let them into their lives.
Koch has many stories of patients who have expressed how much easier navigation has made their cancer experience, but one story in particular sticks with her.
“We recently had a patient who brought her sister [to the clinic]. The patient was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and had gone through treatment with us,” says Koch. “And now her sister has been diagnosed with cancer and is going through it all. Our patient was telling her sister, ‘These guys are awesome — if you have any questions at all, they will answer them.’ It was just rewarding to see how much we helped. It felt really amazing.”
Dorothea Presakarchuk is another Hinton resident who has been positively affected by the nurses’ cancer patient navigation services. Diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2017, Presakarchuk has been seeing Koch and Murphy since April.
“Coming to see the girls at the Hinton Community Cancer Centre is like coming home. I’m free to talk about my concerns here — and not just the physical ones. Cancer gets into your heart and soul and the nurses help me with that, too,” says Presakarchuk. “They always accommodate our needs. I’m never just a patient.”
This level of connection stems from the deep sense of empathy both nurses have for their patients. “I like sitting down and learning my patients’ stories. I like knowing where they’re coming from, what’s important to them and how I can make things easier for them,” says Koch. “Going into nursing, I knew I wanted that interaction. I wanted to know people.”
Today, one of Koch’s main goals as a nurse is to make sure no rural cancer patient drops through the cracks. “I want the Hinton Community Cancer Centre to be a known resource in our catchment area,” she says. “I want people to know that we are here. That’s really important to me, because as much as we try, there are still people that we miss.”
Changes to funding at the clinic have helped Koch and Murphy provide their patients with a better level of care than ever before. While patient navigation isn’t a new concept, Hinton Healthcare Centre site manager Fiona Murray-Galbraith explains that the cancer centre began to receive funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation in 2013. This funding allowed the centre to extend its hours and open five days a week, as opposed to just three. It also allowed the nurses designated time to spend with their patients.
“We now have time to actually sit down with patients, see if they have any questions, see how they’re feeling and explore any other concerns,” says Murphy.
“Cancer patient navigation is so important in helping people get through what is probably themost difficult time of their life.” —Carolyn Murphy
Recent renovations have also helped. Thanks to a $1.2-million provincial grant, the Hinton Community Cancer Centre has been able to modernize and double its size. Construction began in September 2015 and finished less than one year later, in June 2016. “Before the renovations, we had a very small space which we identified as having some patient comfort issues, patient confidentiality issues and also patient safety issues,” says Murray-Galbraith.
Koch says the new space allows her and Murphy to care for their patients to the best of their abilities. Not only are patients given more privacy, but, thanks to Alberta Cancer Foundation donor support, they are now made much more comfortable due to new clinic additions that include Cadillac chairs with heat and massage for those receiving chemotherapy, a TV and sound system, and a small kitchen.
But Murray-Galbraith believes the new space is a bonus and that it’s the nurses, the physicians and all the staff who are the heart of the Hinton Community Cancer Centre.
“I think we have exceptional nurses here who absolutely live the values of Alberta Health Services,” says Murray-Galbraith. “Both Tammy and Carolyn have a willingness to go above and beyond to help their patients. They both have a real passion for their job. They care for their patients and make their cancer journey as seamless and comfortable as they can.”
Learn more about the Alberta Cancer Foundation Patient Navigator Program at albertacancer.ca
Tammy Koch’s Career Milestones
Completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Alberta
Moved to Hinton and started work at the Hinton Healthcare Centre in medical-surgical
Started working at the Hinton Community Cancer Clinic in the Hinton Healthcare Centre
Finished cancer patient navigation training and began a dual role as a clinic nurse and a cancer patient navigator
Carolyn Murphy’s Career Milestones
Completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
Moved from the East Coast to Hinton and began working at the Hinton Healthcare Centre in acute care
Began cancer patient navigation training and accepted a position as a cancer patient navigator at the Hinton Community Cancer Centre, covering a maternity leave
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