By Carri Black, RN, coordinator of the Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center
I have been an oncology nurse for 21 years. When I started at the Detroit Medical Center as a new graduate from nursing school, I really had no idea what area I wanted to specialize in. I was offered a position in oncology and since then, I’ve never left.
For the last 17 years, I have been the coordinator for the Head & Neck Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center. The Head & Neck MDT was one of the first groups to pioneer the multidisciplinary team approach to patient care, back in the 1980s, when Karmanos was known as the Michigan Cancer Foundation.
Our team is comprised of surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgical residents, a speech and swallowing therapist, an endocrinologist, dentists, staff nurses, research nurses, social workers, dieticians and ambulatory care associates. It’s a very big team, with a lot of consultants, for a group of patients who have very special needs. Together, we develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient and provide them with the education and support to afford them the best possible outcomes.
Our clinic nurses have a vital role in patients’ care, beginning with the very first time we meet them. Collaborating with the physician, nurses help coordinate all details of a patient’s treatment plan. Cancer patients face so many different challenges during the process of receiving their diagnosis and then choosing treatment for their cancer. Compassion, empathy and expertise from our nursing team help to guide our patients through a most difficult time.
Our ambulatory care associates, Katy and Tamesha, are the familiar and friendly faces that greet our patients, whether it is their first visit or an annual visit to the Head & Neck Oncology clinic. Teamwork is essential for providing excellent patient care and we strive to give our very best to patients every single day.
As health care providers we all have memories of a particular patient, or patients, who stand out in our mind. I met a woman, whom I’ll call H, and her family the first day they came to the Head & Neck Oncology clinic for an opinion regarding her newly diagnosed sinus cancer. At only 31 years of age, H had so much life left to live and so many milestones ahead of her that she hadn’t yet met.
Unfortunately, it was determined that her tumor could not be removed. H faced this diagnosis head-on and found a way to incorporate chemotherapy and radiation treatment into her daily life. Throughout her treatment, H lived life to its fullest, seldom stopping to pity herself or ask “why?” H got married and had a daughter who happened to be very close in age to my own daughter.
Tragically, after almost six years of treatment, and at a time when her daughter was only 2 years old, H succumbed to her disease. With a young daughter of my own at home, I couldn’t help but put myself in H’s shoes and wonder how was it that H managed to face her diagnosis and treatment with such grace and dignity?
A few years ago, H’s mother came to the clinic to visit me and told me that she had someone who she wanted me to meet. There beside her was a sweet, beautiful little girl – H’s daughter. I kneeled down beside her, told her how pretty she was, and that she looked just like her mommy. I can only imagine how painful it was for H’s own mom to return to Karmanos, but I was so touched that she came to see me that day and introduced me to her lovely young granddaughter.
I have been asked so many times, by friends, family members and patients – “How do you work with cancer patients every day?” My response is always the same: I can’t imagine doing anything else – I love what I do. Over the years, I have learned strength, courage and compassion from my patients and I can only hope that I impact their lives as much as they impact mine.