Nurse navigators giving patients better outcomes

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INDIANAPOLIS — 51-year-old Steve Curry is facing some pretty tough challenges.  He’s been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and most recently, heart failure.

“My heart was enlarged and I had an atrial valve leak,” says the Indianapolis educator. 

It turns out, the strong chemotherapy drugs he’s taken has kept his cancer from growing. But they also contributed to his heart problems. When he developed a cough and complained of extreme fatigue, Kerry Skurka was called in for help. She is a nurse

Navigator and a cancer survivor herself, she immediately recognized Steve needed a cardiologist to manage his heart problems as well as a cancer specialist.

“We got him in to see Dr. Rao,” says Skurka. “He put him on cardioprotective medicines. We watched him, and we worked with the oncologist moving forward in a timely manner and he is already moving forward with a new regimen and a new plan.  And he’s getting his cancer treated.”

Skurka’s responsibilities include ordering appropriate tests, sorting out prescriptions and sometimes navigating the hospital and medical offices. She was even able to get Steve a blood pressure cuff so he could check his blood pressure at home. She continually updates all of Steve’s doctors on his condition.

Nurse navigators are instrumental in the success of cases like Steve’s.

“They keep track of the patients, make sure they don’t get lost, appropriate testing gets ordered,” says Dr. Vijay Rao, a cardio oncologist with Franciscan Health. “The follow up for these patients is really set in stone.”

What doctors have learned is cancer patients know about hair loss and nausea when it comes to chemotherapy. They don’t necessarily recognize heart problems. 

“They don’t see it,” says Dr. Meghana Raghavendra, an oncologist with Franciscan Health. “They cannot feel it. They just feel more fatigued. They might have some swelling, shortness of breath. And when you’re going through chemotherapy cancer treatments, it’s easy to blame everything on the cancer treatment and not think about, this could be my heart.”

Steve Curry’s problems were caught early. His heart function is much improved. He’s thankful for his nurse navigator because she has helped save his life.

“It takes a lot of stress off and stress feeds cancer. So you definitely don’t want to be stressed.”

The nurse navigator program at Franciscan Health has been around for about 4 years. It’s a program intended for high-risk patients, who might develop health problems while undergoing chemo.

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