St. Vincent’s New Patient Navigator Supports Cancer Patients

From left to right: Raye Gaddy (patient), Susan Salter, MD and Natalie Hooks, Patient Navigator
“Cancer is so personal,” says Natalie Hooks, the first Patient Navigator at St. Vincent’s Bruno Cancer Center. The position was created in July, and within two weeks, Hooks had 15 new patients in her care.

“We’re hoping she will be seeing all the new radiation/oncology patients,” says Kris Boone, manager of Bruno Cancer Center. Ultimately, the Center wants patient navigator support for all of the 450 chemo patients they treat each year. “So we already want to get more navigators,” she says.

The patient navigator position sprang from a guideline of the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. Starting in 2015, centers seeking accreditation must have a patient navigation system in place.

Other facilities in Birmingham have also added navigators to their staff. Princeton hired one at the start of the year, and UAB put several in place last year.

The most common problem patients present to navigators is finding affordable lodging and transportation during their cancer treatments. But Hook is there for any needs that arise. “Any support that we can provide them with, I want to help,” she says.

“It is not just the cancer you’re treating, but the whole body, and that can affect so many different things in their life,” Boone says. She lists anything from keeping food down to feeling up to mowing the lawn to feeling anxious about socializing.

Simply hearing the diagnosis can be debilitating. “When patients hear the ‘C’ word, they think, ‘I’m going to die’,” Hooks says. But her personal experience with breast cancer and multiple myeloma gives hope to those newly diagnosed.

Hooks is the first person new radiation/oncology patients meet when come to the Bruno Cancer Center — even before they see any nurses or physicians. “My job is to find out what they need and pass them along to someone who can help,” Hooks says.

She starts by leading them through a distress screening tool to discern trouble areas, such as nutrition, family, finances and transportation. “I’m trying to find out what type of situation they have going on, and then I try to find the resource to fill that need,” she says.

Besides the logistics of lodging that out-of-town patients face, Hooks can help patients with insurance, financial advice, or even family problems. “We’ve had patients who didn’t want to tell their spouse they had cancer or wanted to know how to tell their kids,” Boone says.

 Hooks has begun amassing a master list of resources to answer any needs, but the most common problem stills lies with transportation. “I have a patient from Oneonta  who has to come every day for treatment,” Hooks says. “It would have been an hour drive each way. She’s got rectal cancer, and her husband works out of town, so she needed to be close for treatment.”

Hooks got her a space at Hope Lodge. It’s located right by St. Vincent’s and houses cancer patients who live at least 40 miles out of the city.

Often, patients don’t understand the problems that will arise from treatments, and the patient navigator can offer help before it’s needed. “Chemo can cause some patients to not be able to eat. They have no appetite, and they lose weight,” Hooks says. She refers them to the staff dietician who helps them plan the content and timing of their meals to help offset the effects of the treatments.

The support of the patient navigator lasts through their entire treatment period. Within two days of the patient’s initial meeting with her, Hooks will follow up. “I don’t ever go away,” she says. “The ones I’ve connected with, I’m at the door waiting on them when they come in for their next treatment. Or I catch them in the dressing room or as they go down the hall. I want to let them know I’m everywhere.”

Unlike with physicians and nurses, the connection with the patient navigator can become very personal. “When you have cancer, you need somebody you can pick up the phone and dial at a specific number,” Hooks says, explaining how frustrating phone menus can be to an anxious patient. “Sometimes you just need someone to help you make it through that day.”

Boone says St. Vincent’s patient navigator program also benefits referring physicians. “If we couldn’t help them, those patients would have no choice but to go back to their surgeons or primary cares and see if they could help.”

Cancer, she adds, is so emotional. “But we have the best patient navigator in the world, because she’s so positive. If you could see Natalie smile, you’d understand. They feel relieved after they see her and know she’s there for them.”


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