Naree Ager’s career in cancer care all stems back to a decision made in her final year of nursing school. Faced with choosing between critical care units for her practicum, while completing her nursing diploma at the Foothills School of Nursing in 1989, Ager says she was initially hesitant to venture into oncology.
“Cancer has a stigma attached to it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but I chose it,” says Ager. “It was probably the best decision I ever made because I never veered from that path.”
In the three decades since, Ager has continued working with cancer patients, moving from her initial work as a front-line nurse into her current role as the associate manager of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program (BMT) and Hematology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary.
Ager has spent 24 years working with the Tom Baker’s BMT program following six years on an inpatient unit at the Foothills Medical Centre. In her current role, she focuses on optimizing the delivery of care coordination for patients with malignant hematology diseases and solid tumours, such as lymphoma, through the BMT program. Most of Ager’s work happens behind the scenes, working on projects both within the Tom Baker and provincially, to help cancer patients navigate their treatment journeys with more ease.
On a day-to-day basis, Ager’s role means working closely with physicians, nurses, clerks, social workers and other highly skilled medical professionals, overseeing the operation of the clinic’s outpatient component through her team, while also working closely with the inpatient teams to ensure a seamless line of care.
Partly inspired by her mother, who was also a nurse, Ager says she initially entered into the medical field looking for a way to offer her nurturing qualities on a larger scale.
“I’ve always had that innate trait of wanting to reach out and help make things better for people,” says Ager.
“Everybody finds meaning in it in terms of choosing their path in different ways, and for me, it was that patient connection. It was that partnership. It was that journey.”
It’s this profound connection that has kept her inspired throughout her work in health care.
Today, she recalls interactions with a terminal patient early on in her career that helped dissipate the stigma surrounding cancer. Still unsure of her choice to step into cancer care, Ager says she built a connection with the patient and that experience eliminated any hesitation she felt entering the workforce.
“He was the one that made it not as scary,” says Ager. “He was courageous, he was strong, but he was also honest and vulnerable. He had a profound impact on me as I started up my nursing career.”
The interaction stayed with Ager, lending to her central philosophy of gathering inspiration from those around her. Years later, witnessing the courage of patients continues to drive much of her work.
“As down as you can be because you’re sad for them, they actually bring you up. They have that courage; they have that spirit; they have that bright light,” she says. “When they’re going through a time as tough as they are, their ability to hold us up is pretty amazing.”
As she moved from her initial designation in nursing into her current administrative role, Ager admits the transition led to worries regarding losing the patient connection that attracted her to the field. As a nurse, working with patients meant feedback came directly to her. In her managerial position, there was a buffer between her and the impact of her work.
Ultimately, it was another manager who told her to take a step back to understand the large-scale effect of her work. Ager recalls her reminder that “everything that you do each and every day trickles down to the patient in some shape or form.”
An Extended Family
Today, Ager says she’s found similar fulfillment from her nursing days through working with and supporting her team.
Finding inspiration in the compassionate work of her colleagues has been a motivator throughout her leadership work at the Tom Baker.
“It’s hard work and it’s tough work. Some of our outcomes are not so good, but people keep doing what they do,” she says. “There’s such diversity, yet such community when it comes to the work that we all do. We’re here because we want to be here. We’re here because we love this patient population.”
To better lead her team, Ager also completed a master of arts in leadership through Royal Roads University’s distance learning program in 2014.
Beyond her team, the long-term nature of BMT treatments and complex followups often required has meant Ager has journeyed along with her patients for years at a time as they stay with the program. She says the fulfillment of partnering with patients and experiencing milestones with them, from finding new jobs to becoming grandparents, has long been a highlight of her work.
“They really are part of this bigger family,” says Ager. “To able to look after patients, to be allowed into their life — the whole dynamic is quite a privilege.”
Championing Patient Advocacy
With patients at the core of her work, Ager has pushed to optimize the BMT experience. Notably, in 2017, she led a project to extend the hours of the department to increase accessibility for patients. The initiative increased the hours of daily operation during the workweek from eight to 12 hours. The clinic is now open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday. It also extended operation into weekends. Patients can now access the clinic from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Beyond added availability, these extended hours mean patients can access chemotherapy options at the Tom Baker, which was previously unavailable as an outpatient treatment site due to the time restrictions.
“Just hearing that we’ve made a difference to make their journey a little bit more positive, that’s all you need,” says Ager.
Carol Baumgarten, director of Cancer Care Teams for the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, has worked with Ager in several capacities there, including alongside her in the clinic hour extension initiative. She says Ager has consistently displayed an aptitude for embracing the constantly evolving health-care field.
“I’ve always been amazed at how Naree has tackled change,” says Baumgarten. “She has always been a driver for, ‘How can we do things differently? How can we think differently? And is the patient at the centre of our conversation?’”
There are promising developments in Calgary cancer care on the horizon, including the new Calgary Cancer Centre. Currently under construction, it is set to include an entire floor dedicated to outpatient BMT. Ager says she looks forward to offering cancer patients cutting- edge treatment as she continues to work to put new treatment options into practice.
In the meantime, innovations such as the emerging research around CAR T-cell treatment — a process in which patients “T” cells are genetically modified to fight pathogens — present further potential for the world of cancer care, offering yet another evolution of approach to treating the disease.
“It’s complicated because there’s always that vision of what you want to do. And then it’s part of my role to operationalize that,” admits Ager of developing treatment options.
Despite the daunting task it presents, Ager adds the potential of innovative treatment is exciting, nonetheless. “It is definitely going to shift the way we treat patients in the future,” she says.
Beyond her career, Ager holds further stakes in the future of health care. Her two children are both currently pursuing post-secondary education in health-related fields, representing the third generation of the family in the health sector.
Ager hopes her legacy at the Tom Baker is one directly related to her philosophy of nurturing, patient-centred care. In the constantly evolving field of cancer care, she hopes these values will continue to be a priority in the medical field.
“[I’d like to be remembered for] being a patient advocate, being an advocate for my team and being an advocate for the program,” says Ager. “Really, helping to make the program the best it can be.”
Naree Ager Career Highlights
- Celebrating 30 years of nursing and working with the incredible team that makes up the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program.
- Completing a master of arts in Leadership, Health Specialization in 2014.
- Opportunities to be part of the functional planning for the new Calgary Cancer Centre.
- Operationalizing the extended hours in the Tom Baker Cancer Centre BMT Treatment area in 2017 – offering extended days and weekends.