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UPMC Western Maryland oncology nurses take on physical, spiritual and emotional roles in care

As a part of the “year of the nurse”, 2020’s year-long celebration honoring the work of these dedicated caregivers, UPMC Western Maryland is proud to recognize its oncology nurses during the month of May. Oncology Nurses Month honors the nurses that provide care for people of all ages who are diagnosed with cancer. Oncology is a complex field in which nurses support patients, families, and caregivers through the stress of diagnosis and treatment, as well as the anxiety of many uncertainties brought on by the disease.

“I am in awe of our oncology nurses for the way they balance the multiple physical, spiritual and emotional needs of our patients all while providing the highest quality care,” said Ben Kosewski, Executive Director, Cancer Services at UPMC Western Maryland. “Our nurses are driven from their heart to work with patients diagnosed with cancer, and it shows in the positive comments our patients have about their experience with our team.”

At UPMC Western Maryland’s Schwab Family Cancer Center, two licensed practical nurses (LPNs) team up with 24 registered nurses and four unit assistants across four different departments: Medical Oncology, Radiation Oncology, Braddock Oncology and Cancer Services. Schwab Family Cancer Center nurses are a vital part of the oncology team and provide high-quality care with skill, compassion, and respect.

The Medical Oncology Department is staffed by 19 RNs and four unit assistants who work with patients in different capacities and roles. Medical Oncology has four distinct areas in which RNs provide care: blood draw, fast track, infusion and physician exam. Each one of these areas calls upon a unique clinical skill set to ensure that patients receive the compassionate care for which the Schwab Family Cancer Center is known.

As RNs proceed through their orientation, the first area they often receive their training in is the blood draw area. Before a patient meets with a medical oncologist or physician assistant, the patient must have a nursing assessment performed and a blood specimen taken, which is evaluated by an onsite laboratory. This critical step documents any medical concerns that the patient has and also provides the medical team with information to help them determine the safest and most effective treatment.

Once a patient progresses through the blood draw area, the patient will see their provider to discuss the results of any lab work and/or imaging tests previously performed. The Exam RN supports the provider in these discussions to help the patient understand the information being shared and establish his/her care plan. The Exam RN generally coordinates care for each patient, including triaging phone calls from patients, their caregivers, and other staff within the department and throughout the hospital.

Exam RNs also provide educational sessions for patients before they start any cancer treatments. It is well known that starting a cancer treatment can cause a significant amount of anxiety. In these educational sessions, the RN reviews what the patient can expect from the treatments, including any potential side effects. During the session, the Exam RN also provides an orientation to the department and an overview of the many services available at the Schwab Family Cancer Center.

In the infusion room, RNs provide care to patients receiving intravenous (IV) therapies. The RNs in the infusion room deliver cancer treatments in the form of chemotherapy and cutting-edge immunotherapy, as well as supportive treatments such as IV fluids, blood products and IV antibiotics. RNs must go through extensive training – which is now coordinated with the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center – before they are able to provide any treatments in this setting.

The final location in Medical Oncology is fast track, an area where quick injections and other treatments are delivered to patients. This fast-paced environment can have upwards of 50 patient interactions each day with a variety of treatments delivered.

“I take pride in taking good care of our patients,” said Sharon Bennett, RN in Medical Oncology. “I take my time with each patient no matter how busy the day is. They are so appreciative of everything we do for them, whether that’s providing a drink, a snack, a warm blanket or just a listening ear. It’s a very fast-paced area to work, and it can be sad at times, but it is very rewarding. Our patients are the best.”

Kristine Swick, RN, said that personal connections to cancer have motivated her in her work. “I had a melanoma diagnosis in 2010 and I lost my step-father to brain cancer. It puts things into perspective. I care about our patients and I want to help them during this difficult time in their lives,” she said.

The Cancer Center is also supported by a nurse navigator who serves as a partner to all patients to help and assist them through their treatment journey. This role also serves to coordinate care between different departments and adds another layer of support to get the patients the services they need.

Additionally, two clinical trials nurses are also on staff to work with patients who have elected to enroll in clinical trials that provide cutting edge treatment still in the research phase. These nurses have front-row seats to the doors that trials can open for cancer patients.

Radiation Oncology is staffed by two RNs who support the clinical operations of the department and patients undergoing radiation therapy.  The RNs have a unique knowledge of radiobiology and radiation principles that supports the Cancer Center’s radiation oncologist and patients in their established care plan.  RNs in this department also provide an educational session about the established treatment plan and potential side effects. The RNs work very closely with the physician to evaluate patients throughout the course of their treatment for any side effects, since early intervention is critical to keeping the patient as comfortable as possible. The RNs also support patients in specialty (High Dose Rate Brachytherapy) procedures performed by the department. The RNs also perform clinical tasks such as rooming patients, updating relevant medical information, triaging patient phone calls and other concerns, and generally being a cornerstone of support to each patient.

Radiation Oncology Nurse Renate Brown said listening to the patient is a key part of her job. “They are extremely anxious and scared when they first come to our department,” she said. “I find by allowing the patients to talk and by listening to them it calms them down and allows them to express their feelings. I feel I have a calming tone that helps put patients at ease, and they respond positively to that. I treat every patient as an individual – as if they were my only patient.” Her job is made easier by her coworkers and the teamwork on display at UPMC Western Maryland. “I live an hour away and could work closer to home, but I chose to work here and am thankful every day for this job. I would not work anywhere else.”

Braddock Oncology, located in the UPMC Western Maryland Medical Arts Center, is staffed by two LPNs.  The LPNs in this location support both oncology and hematology patients by performing the clinical functions of rooming of patients, updating medical health history, triaging patient phone calls and concerns, and coordinating the established care plans.  Often the LPNs are some of the first people with whom a patient meets and the LPNs help carry out the mission of UPMC Western Maryland by displaying a kind and compassionate approach in the care they provide.

The group of oncology nurses at UPMC Western Maryland are led by two oncology nurses who were staff nurses within the department before becoming part of the leadership team: Nicki Thompson, Manager, Cancer Programs and Services and Justine Dom, Nurse Manager, Medical Oncology.

Nicki has direct leadership over the Cancer Support Services staff and the Schwab Family Cancer Center’s accreditations, and Justine leads the Braddock Oncology office, the Medical Oncology Clinic and Infusion Services.

“I have worked in health care for over 18 years in a variety of settings, but I knew when I came to the Schwab Family Cancer Center that this is where I was meant to be,” Nicki said. “I love this job because of the patients and being able to be there to support them through the hard times and celebrate their victories. Cancer treatment is a long, hard journey that requires a multidisciplinary team approach to meet all the patients’ needs. It’s exciting for me to be in a role where I can be part of expanding the services we offer to our patients.”

Being able to build a rapport and a deep connection with the patients and their family members is what drove Justine to work in oncology. “You will never come across a better group of people who often think of others before themselves,” she said. “Oncology has been my passion for the last 11 years. It is amazing to witness a patient when they hear the words, ‘no more cancer’, but heartbreaking to witness a patient hear the words ‘your cancer has progressed’. We are here to help the patient fight – whether it is to become cured or to make it to a big milestone or celebration such as a birth of a grandchild or a wedding of a child. These are the moments that an oncology nurse lives for, knowing that we did make a difference. We would save them all if we could, so until then, we just love and support our patients as best as we can.”