From left: Linda McCarthy and Jennie Tarica, M.S.N., RN, CN-BN - PHOTOS BY BOB RIVES
Since being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer earlier this year, I’ve learned that compassion can take many forms. Certainly, there are the heartfelt sentiments, expressed as news of the devastating diagnosis sinks in, and the empathy shared when treatments often rival the disease in discomfort, distress and discombobulation of the daily routine that many now label your “new reality.”
Encountering this new reality, patients, their families and caregivers routinely find themselves battling not only the disease but also the often convoluted and confusing administrative infrastructure designed to aid a patient’s recovery.
Although well-intended, this medical matrix isn’t always well-organized, so patients genuinely appreciate that there is knowledgeable, compassionate help available. The difficulty often lies in accessing and utilizing these various avenues of assistance quickly and effectively. More often than not, the process requires a seasoned professional to serve as cheerleader and champion.
Many of us at Sibley Memorial Hospital are blessed to have Jennie Tarica, breast cancer nurse navigator, to see us through our medical matrix. For nearly a decade, Jennie has offered patients and their families her own brand of compassion, reassurance, empathy and expertise.
One of my first encounters with Jennie, as I tried to emotionally absorb my new reality, was a cheerful phone call. Her topic: gardening.
On the mountainside where I live, the arable soil was long ago supplanted by rock — hardened, unforgiving terrain that only heavy machinery can reasonably penetrate. Additionally, gardening was never a favored pastime of mine, because it usually meant weeding row after row of country corn and pole beans. When it came to creating personal moments of Zen, gardening definitely lost out.
Still, it was extremely kind of Jennie to include it in a welcoming conversation that, mercifully, didn’t focus on a dreaded disease.
Yet, in a flash of serendipity, Jennie did introduce me to gardening’s calming aura: She’s instrumental in maintaining the garden in front of Sibley’s entrance. Jennie eagerly volunteers her time, tending to an array of plant life. Her sunflowers, especially, seem to reach through the vast windows of the hospital lobby, spreading comfort to those of us seated on the benches, waiting for the next blood draw or trip to the infusion room.
Where Jennie ultimately found a larger connection as I waged war on my new reality was horses. Turns out we’re both incurable equine groupies. We traded stories about our favorite hay burners and the fun times we enjoyed with them over the years.
Our discussions about the venerated animal led me to seek out what I’ve taken to calling my “spirit horse.” His name is Cesar, and he lives on a farm near my home. I bring him carrots (the old boy will roll you for a carrot) and just visit — no riding, because all those cancer-fighting drugs can render bones susceptible to snaps and cracks. Cesar and I just hang out, sharing carrots and a few nose rubs.
It was those horsey conversations and email exchanges with Jennie that encouraged me to look past the illness, pull on a pair of faded jeans, grab a bag of carrots and introduce myself to Cesar. From then on, I knew I had a friend in Cesar — and in Jennie.
Since that time, Jennie has befriended me in ways that require patience, enlightenment, professionalism and a sizable dose of civility bordering on saintliness. It stems from her extraordinary ability to unravel the mystery of the medical matrix.
We each have our own stories associated with prescriptions, insurance requirements and doctors’ directives, and how they can all congeal into one gigantic mess. Jennie is totally unfazed by the medical madness. Guided by her inherent cheerfulness, she remains a stalwart advocate, confronting the matrix on behalf of her patients.
I personally have benefited from her remarkable talent. At the top of my list: an endless stream of billing and insurance issues. Complicating things more is the fact that I live 75 miles from Sibley, hiding on that unforgiving mountain. Thank goodness for emails, faxes, phones and a very facilitating Jennie.
Where has Jennie’s matrix-managing ability aided me most? That would be in applying for financial aid to help cover the out-of-pocket expenses stemming from lifesaving chemo drugs. You know the ones: Their actual monthly cost rivals the gross domestic product of a small nation.
Trolling the internet, I found several organizations that help with killer copays. These groups understandably require an incredible amount of information. Some of it the patient or caregiver supplies; some of it the medical provider supplies — on application forms that aren’t always structured well, with instructions that aren’t always clear, to be relayed on fax machines that can be decidedly temperamental.
With Jennie’s invaluable assistance and dogged perseverance, I was able to secure much-needed funding to help offset the cost of chemotherapy drugs — modern marvels that have me composing and typing this essay.
I soon learned that such pro-patient activism is typical for Jennie. She routinely supports fundraisers for various breast cancer-related charities. It’s not unusual to find her at an event, decked out in pink and pressing the case for cash and a cure. Jennie also helped design post-mastectomy surgery bags filled with an assortment of recovery-related items for appreciative patients and their caregivers.
Jennie’s creative energies also reach into the managerial ranks: She developed and supervised Sibley’s first oncology inpatient unit. Additionally, Jennie became an education and training specialist, focusing on oncology and pain management.
Whatever her undertakings, Jennie’s first priority is her patients and how she can help them successfully navigate the medical matrix. Those of us fortunate enough to have Jennie as our matrix navigator will always remember how she aided our recovery, redefining our “new reality” in terms more reflective of life’s promise and potential and less about the dire and dismal.
For these reasons, Cesar the Spirit Horse and I respectfully nominate Jennie Tarica for the 2018 CURE
® Extraordinary Healer® Award for Oncology Nursing.