Patient navigator removes barriers for cancer patients

June 09, 2006
Eunice Rivenbark struggled through the early days of treatment for lung cancer. The 71-year-old worried about the big things, like expenses and being able to have some care in her home. She also worried about the effects of her disease, like losing her hair and needing a wig. And how was she going to get back and forth to all those doctor appointments?

Enter the patient navigator.

LaSonia Melvin, who fills this role at the Zimmer Cancer Center, serves as a liaison between cancer patients and the many barriers that keep them from getting the care they need, whether it’s arranging transportation to medical appointments, finding suitable housing, or eating proper food so nutrition is maintained. Patient navigator services are a recent addition at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Zimmer Cancer Center and for patients, it’s making all the difference in the world.

For 54-year-old Jacqueline Brown who has pancreatic cancer, the patient navigator means having someone listen to her and help her maintain housing. Brown was referred to the patient navigator after she went to the Cancer Center to tell the staff she was not going to continue her treatments.

“My body just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I was feeling like I was ready to give up. They called Sonia and seeing her was like an angel. She really listened to me and paid attention. I was relieved at having someone to talk to, and I’ve gained strength from seeing her work on my behalf.”

For Rivenbark, still undergoing lung cancer treatment, a navigator means help getting qualified for Medicaid. She also needed occupational therapy for her left hand because of nerve damage from the cancer, supplemental nutrition, help getting some prescriptions filled, personal care services in the home, and a wig. And both women have needed help with transportation getting to and from the hospital for their treatments.

“Whatever it takes for patients to get the best care is what I do for them,” Melvin said. “And there’s more than just medical treatment involved in healing.”

The patient navigator program is part of a grant from the National Cancer Institute that strives to identify and remove barriers to health care for minority, low-income and ethnic populations. NHRMC is one of only six medical centers in the country to receive this grant.

Patients are referred to the program by their nurse or doctor. Both Brown and Rivenbark were referred early in their treatment, at a time when they were extremely sick and had more questions than answers.

The women believe that Melvin’s interactions have made it easier for them to continue with their treatment and deal with the issues that arise when dealing with a serious illness. Rivenbark said cancer patients don’t know the system and can be easily overwhelmed because they don’t have the energy and feel too badly to do the things necessary to sustain life.

“If I hadn’t met Sonia I would have gone without a lot of things,” she said. “She took care of a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to deal with because I was too sick. She probably did lots of things that weren’t really her job, but she always did it. Having people care about you is the best medicine. Sonia was always there for me.”
To find out more about the patient navigator program, call 342.3403.