Oncology nursing is a unique -- and often misunderstood—nursing specialty. “People tell me, ‘It’s so sad, I can't believe you do that’,” Janina Bilem, RN, explains. Pam Grams, RN, agrees, “People say it must be ‘really depressing, really sad’ when they hear about my specialty.” But Bilem, Grams and their peers at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center emphasize that their work is anything but; it’s incredibly rewarding, fulfilling and inspiring.
“The people that we get to meet and take care of are the most humble, kind people. They don't care about the clothes that they wear or the car that they drive, they're just trying to make it [for example] to their daughter's wedding next June. It's a refreshing place to be, especially when there is so much materialism in our world-- that's not what happens on this unit,” Bilem details. Grams adds, “You hear the word ‘cancer’, and it's very scary for patients. They need support; they need someone who can guide them through the whole process. It’s very fulfilling; I feel like I'm an area where I can make a difference.” Annie Lubline, RN, a colleague of Bilem and Grams agrees, “I love the oncology patient population—they are different than on any other floor where I’ve floated. These patients are amazing: their resilience, strength; they are so tough and have unexpected gratitude.”
“It’s very fulfilling; I feel like I’m in an area where I can make a difference.”
Invested, specialized nurses
Bilem, who serves as the director of inpatient oncology services at Swedish Medical Center, explains that proof of the special atmosphere of oncology nursing at Swedish lies in the numbers. “One of the things that sets our oncology program apart is the longevity and skill set of our nursing team. We have a 40-year nurse [Grams], a 30-year nurse, and several 20-year, 15-year and 10-year nurses. We have a very invested team -- turnover is low, and our team is dedicated to our patients, our hospital, and each other.” Bilem, herself, is a prime example of the commitment the oncology nurses at Swedish demonstrate. “I was a new grad here 13 years ago, and I have worked my way up to the unit director.”
“We have a very invested team -- turnover is low, and our team is dedicated to our patients, our hospital, and each other.”
Grams, who has been with the hospital for more than 40 years, details the support of hospital leadership in educational and growth opportunities has been instrumental to the strength of her career at Swedish. “I started as an LPN when I was 24, and I gradually got my RN associates degree and eventually my BSN. Then, when I started doing oncology nursing 20 years ago, we got our chemo qualifications, and then I was able to go a step further and get my oncology certification, becoming an OCN,” she recalls. “Everyone was so supportive and caring. And now, I get the opportunity to give back as a mentor through the preceptor program, guiding younger nurses; I love doing that.”
Going the ‘extra mile’
One of the things that makes oncology nursing unique is the relationships that the team often develops with their patients. “Blood cancer patients in particular go through a more intense induction therapy that includes a longer inpatient stay than those patients with solid tumors, who are mostly treated with outpatient care,” Bilem explains.
“Our patients really do feel very loved, and our nurses feel they are truly making a difference.”
“Our nurses really start to become part of the patient’s family during this time. We laugh and encourage them. We do special things like we know that 25 laps around our unit is a mile, and we will check off their laps for the day to encourage them. We try to have fun birthday parties if they spend their birthdays with us. We do celebrations when they finish chemo or when they are leaving us, we do a clap out tunnel. I think our patients really do feel very loved and it gives our nurses the sense that they are truly making a difference – which they absolutely are.”
Expansion on the horizon
The strength of the team of oncology nurses at Swedish is well-documented and contributed to the decision to expand oncology services at Swedish Medical Center. The Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare, selected its program at Swedish Medical Center for growth in 2023, which includes the development of a 30-bed inpatient oncology unit that will be housed in the hospital’s new northwest tower. “We are looking forward to the upgrade with the latest technology as well as amenities for our patients’ families,” Lubline states. “They’ll be beautiful views everywhere and just a healing environment.” Bilem adds, “We will be starting new clinical trials there as well—we are looking forward to being able to offer more solutions to our patients.”
The expanded unit is expected to open in early 2023 and the team feels confident that the transition will only continue to strength their bond with each other and their patients. “I aim to have a department where my own mother could be taken care of – in fact I did have her placed on my unit at one point – not because I wanted to be involved in her care (I wasn’t) but I wanted her taken care of by my nurses because I know that their training, their expertise is the best. And if it’s the best for my mother, it's the best for everyone we see.”
Learn more about Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center on our Web site. To learn more about career opportunities at Swedish Medical Center, search online here.