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Nurse navigator brings helping hand to cancer patients

Mari Damhof is the nurse navigator at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Sometimes the patient is just looking for a quick word of reassurance. But at least a couple of times a day, the door of Mari Damhof's office at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center is closed because someone needs to cry.

Damhof is the nurse navigator at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center.

Barb Hoeft, director of the cancer center, describes her as "our go-to person."

"Every cancer patient needs a nurse navigator to talk to," she said.

Damhof does a little of everything: listening, advocating, troubleshooting, organizing appointments and referrals, and connecting patients and families with the resources they need.

She describes a typical day as "like a pinball machine."

She might help a family weigh the choice between home health care and hospice, for instance, or sort through questions about someone's insurance coverage. Some days she's asked to help arrange transportation for a patient. Other days she might sit down to explain a pathology report to the patient and family.

Before they walk out the door, everyone is given her cell phone number so they can call her any time -- even after hours.

The cost to patients for seeing the nurse navigator? None.

The service is seen as so important that the cancer center and its clinical partner, the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, are financially supporting it to ensure it's available to every patient at no charge.

"We all recognize how valuable our nurse navigator is," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services. "It's vital to the whole program and something that we would continue regardless of the funding. It just has to be there."

The cancer nurse navigator concept isn't new. Large cancer institutions often have staff assigned to case management for patients. The American Cancer Society also has a network of trained navigators to help guide patients and families down the difficult road of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Until about two years ago, the ACS had a navigator whose office was at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. But the position was eliminated when the American Cancer Society reorganized some of its services.

Rice Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers, which operate the Willmar Regional Cancer Center through their Willmar Medical Services joint venture, saw the benefit of a cancer navigator and were committed to creating their own version of the service, Hoeft said.

"It's a lifeline that you can go to," she said.

Hoeft said she wants patients to feel "like they have somebody they can trust and go to and ask anything. It's the sense that somebody is going to walk through this with me. I'm not going to be alone."

Damhof came on board in December 2009, at the same time the Willmar Regional Cancer Center opened with newly integrated medical and radiation cancer services and newly expanded and renovated space at Rice Hospital.

Damhof brings a background in cancer care. She has been both a chemotherapy and radiation therapy nurse. She also has worked with burn patients.

When she interviewed for the position, she was everyone's first choice, Hoeft said.

Energetic yet soft-spoken, Damhof said she likes the variety and challenges that fill her days. With no blueprint for the position, she was told to make the position her own.

"The patients kind of guide me," she said. "My coworkers are phenomenal too and will refer patients to me."

Damhof often is the first contact for someone newly diagnosed with cancer, Holmgren said.

It's "really a big win" to have a nurse who can meet with patients and families right away, he said. "Waiting even a short time can be an emotional trauma."

The presence of a navigator also helps ease the pressure on the clinical staff, so they can focus on the patient's medical needs, he said.

Holmgren and Hoeft said feedback from patients and families has been uniformly positive. As a mark of how successful the navigator has been during the program's first year, Damhof was chosen this fall for a scholarship to attend a national conference on cancer care.

What swayed the scholarship committee was an essay, submitted by Hoeft, describing how Damhof went above and beyond to help a local patient who needed information and reassurance, even though the patient was undergoing cancer treatment out of town.

"That's the kind of service people are looking for," Hoeft said. "I want every patient to feel that."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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