Learning About Oncology Nursing from the Inside

By Kaitlin Phelan

For eight weeks, Kaitlin Phelan was one of three Boston College William F. Connell School of Nursing students who learned about oncology nursing from the inside – observing clinicians at work, talking to care team members about their jobs and careers, and studying a particular area of interest. Phelan, a graduate of a nursing fellowship program made possible by the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Training and Development Fund, describes in her own words her summer at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

In less than a year, I will sit for my national board certification to become a registered nurse. I will be able to proudly tell people “I am a nurse.”

Being a nurse is my dream job, and I confirmed this after a summer at Dana-Farber. I spent eight weeks rotating through various areas of oncology nursing – palliative care, radiation, infusion floors, and the early drug development center. From the first day, when I shadowed Dan Gorman, a nurse practitioner who leads the Supportive and Palliative Radiation Oncology program, I knew I was in the right place. With him, I went to conferences, visited patients, looked at imaging scans, and discussed care plans with other health care team members. These are responsibilities I rarely got to experience during my clinical rotations in school, and I was grateful for this exciting opportunity.

oncology nursing
Kaitlin Phelan (center) receives the Flynn Fellowship from Fred Flynn (left) and clinical specialist Mary Lou Siefert, DNSc, RN (right). The fellowship is named for Flynn’s late wife, Susan Flynn, who died in April 2013, following a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. Despite her death, the level of care she received inspired Frederick Flynn to raise funds to train, educate and develop palliative care and oncology nurses in her honor.

I spent the next few weeks following other nurses, who taught me about their roles at Dana-Farber. Each role was different, but important in its own way.

My favorite thing about Dana-Farber was the use of the primary nurse model, which focuses on the type of care I want to give as a nurse. The goal of the primary nursing model is for every nurse, particularly those in radiation and infusion outpatient clinics, to be assigned to the same patient every time the patient is scheduled for an appointment. This allows the nurse, and one to two other nurses on the patient’s primary nursing team, to stay with the patient from the first day – which may be right after their diagnosis – all the way through treatment. The nurse must understand the diagnosis, treatment, as well as side effects and how to manage them – but this care model also allows them to get to know the patient.

The nurses at Dana-Farber know everything about their patients, from how many dogs they have to where they are going for summer vacation. When this relationship is established, it is incredible to see how much a nurse can make a difference.

One of my favorite moments happened when a patient was talking with her nurse, and the patient’s sister asked if the nurse would be at the clinic again tomorrow. The nurse said, “of course, and I will be taking care of your sister and administering the infusion, just like always.” The sister, with tears in her eyes, said, “you are our safety net here,” and gave her a hug.

Cancer can be scary, but having a person by your side to properly administer medication and keep you healthy, as well as hold your hand and make you feel safe, can make a difference.

That is nursing. That is why I want to be a nurse.

oncology nursing
Showing off matching bracelets — Three oncology nursing students received the Flynn Fellowship and trained at Dana-Farber during the summer of 2015. The fellowship is named for the late Susan Flynn, who died in April 2013 following a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. The teal and white color of the fellowship bracelets represent ovarian cancer awareness.

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