Nurse navigator is backbone of support

July 6, 2018
A nurse walking with her patient in a park.
UCHealth Nurse Navigator Kathy Lehman walks with patient Don Wisuri outside UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central. Photos by Mark Reis.

Don Wisuri came to UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic at Memorial Hospital Central about two years ago and like many patients, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

His circuitous route to the center began, oddly enough, when he felt a twinge in his knee while working out in June 2016. A master cabinet maker, Wisuri had served in Korea for the Army after the war, taught convicts how to build cabinetry in a California prison, and held leadership positions in a vocational school. He wasn’t the kind to drop everything and run to the doctor.

After all, he had planned for months to travel to Minnesota and to Texas, where he had a big job building cabinets. He’d see the doctor when he got back to town.

An orthopedic doctor in Colorado Springs took a look at his knee, ordered an x-ray and then recommended surgery. Before that could happen, though, the doctor asked for Wisuri to have an EKG and blood work done. When the doctor read the results of the lab work, he called Wisuri with an urgent message: “You better get in here.’’

A cancer patient chats with his nurse navigator while sitting at a picnic table in a park.
UCHealth patient Don Wisuri was pleasantly surprised to find help from Kathy Lehman, a nurse navigator who helps answer any questions patients have about their cancer journey.

The blood work showed Wisuri was anemic, and his physician, Dr. Jeffrey Kent, suspected that he may be bleeding internally. He asked Wisuri to have another test, a scope done of his abdominal area, so physicians could see where the bleeding was coming from.

The news wasn’t good: Wisuri had cancer in his stomach.

Cancer, unfortunately, was no stranger in his family. In 2010, his wife died of ovarian cancer after she was treated for 20 months at another hospital. Wisuri sought care at that hospital, but there was no availability to treat him. When he came to UCHealth Memorial Hospital, it was his first time, and he didn’t know what to expect but he quickly was introduced to a philosophy of care that was new to him. It involved a multi-disciplinary team of doctors including medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, surgeons, and gastroenterologists, as well as a genetics counselor, social worker, nurse navigators, and clinical trials staff.

“I stumbled onto that system, and unbeknownst to me, it was the best place in the world for me. I became aware of this group doctor approach – it’s how they approach medical care,’’ he said. “The people they have working for me are unreal, and I literally have been amazed with the care that I have received.’’

During weekly multi-disciplinary care clinics for patients with gastrointestinal, neuro, breast and thoracic cancers, physician specialists meet to discuss each individual’s cancer. The physicians with expertise in many disciplines develop a plan of care which is quickly implemented. After a clinic concerning Wisuri, one of his physicians, Dr. Keyan Riley asked Wisuri to be at Memorial Hospital North at 4:30 a.m. the next day so he could have a port placed so chemotherapy medication could be delivered as safely as possible.

“It’s pretty obvious that the patient is the focus and it stays on the patient,’’ Wisuri said. “Based on your need, they will move heaven and earth to get you in there.’’

Lehman, one of two nurse navigators who help patients with gastrointestinal cancers, became Wisuri’s go-to gal. A courteous and amenable nurse, she gets to know patients and provides each individual with support, education and help with understanding a procedure, medication, scheduling and any other needs.

a man walks in a park with his nurse navigator outside UCHealth Memorial Hospital.
UCHealth Nurse Navigator Kathy Lehman with patient Don Wisuri.

“That, to me, from a patient perspective is the most comforting thing,’’ he said. “They take personal interest in you, they check with you and they do everything within your power to support you and give you guidance and they give you the answers no matter what it is. You have a partner standing next to you to help you through a maze of trees when you don’t know where you are going in that forest.

“The thing for me is I didn’t have to analyze who I needed to call, and wait for a return call. I could call Kathy, and if I left her a message, she would always call me back, even if it was after hours,’’ he said. “Having that navigator, that is a shining star in that system, it truly is. It is so easy to call her and say: “This is my problem.’ ’’

Lehman, who has been a nurse for more than 6 years, said that when she met Wisuri, “We just clicked. I’ll do whatever I need to help him.’’

She was by his side during two rounds of chemotherapy, the second of which was a rough one, landing him in the hospital.

“I’m worried about you,’’ Wisuri remembered Lehman saying at his bedside.

The two rounds of chemo, however, worked, reducing the tumor to the size of a half dollar. On April 3, 2017, he had surgery to remove his stomach. Three subsequent CT scans showed his body was clear of cancer. Though many patients have a feeding tube for three months after surgery to remove the stomach, Wisuri had a tube for one month.

Following surgery, Wisuri wanted to return to the gym to work out so he could regain his strength. He called Lehman to ask what kind of limitations he had on the amount of weight he could lift. In time, he was able to lift 50-pound bags of corn and return to building cabinets.

On May 17, he was scheduled for surgery to repair a hernia, which developed as a result of the large incision from surgery. When the surgeon opened up his stomach, he saw that the cancer had returned. Subsequent tests showed it had spread to his lymph nodes.

“They opened me up and sewed me back up,’’ he said.

Wisuri’s oncologist, Dr. Robert Hoyer, told Wisuri that the cancer is aggressive, and he has only months to live without treatment. He is exploring clinical trials to determine whether he qualifies for one of the studies or experimental medicines.

“That’s where I am today,’’ he said recently. “I’ve got my work cut out for me.’’

Wisuri is not sure what to expect in the coming days, but he is comforted to know that he has people in his corner, a wealth of knowledge and decency, and a nurse navigator that he can call to ask any question, someone to help him navigate through a maze of trees in the forest.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.