In 2012, Barbara Bittner, RN, OCN, made some big changes in her life. As her youngest son prepared to leave for college from their home in Pennsylvania, she prepared to move to Florida, where she wouldn’t have to battle the snow for four months a year.
She had been a nurse for 34 years, spending most of her time on a hospital IV team. She did all the inpatient IV chemotherapy for patients with cancer, but, she says, found a new understanding of the disease when a colleague’s 29-year-old daughter received a cancer diagnosis.
“She had two small children,” Bittner says. “Her illness made me pay attention, and I felt like I had lost a friend when she passed.”
Making a new home in Florida offered an opportunity to adjust her focus, and AdventHealth in New Smyrna Beach needed a navigator, a job that seemed meant for her. Since then, she has seen patients with cancer at the hospital, assessing not only their physical health but also their mental health as they face their diagnosis and treatment.
Women can receive treatment at a number of places in the area, and Bittner and navigators from other facilities made a point of sharing advice about how to help their patients. One of those colleagues was Charlene Brady, a breast cancer survivor and nurse navigator at another hospital. When Brady received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, her friends wanted to make one of her dreams come true — and support their patients with various cancer types at the same time.
“She had always wanted a resource room where the women could hang out,” Bittner says. “Then she got sick with pancreatic cancer. And when she was near the end of life, we told her we were going to create her dream.”
A local church offered a cottage-style building to be used by women affected by cancer, complete with a fireplace and a room for bra fittings. Five of the colleagues, each from a different hospital, teamed up to fill the house with resources: wigs, crafts, bras, prostheses and lymphedema sleeves. Charlene’s Dream opened in the summer of 2016, just after Brady died, but Bittner says they were able to show her the location and paint a picture of what it would offer in her name.
Bittner taught an art class at the facility for the first year, and then local artists volunteered to teach. Multiple support groups brought together women from two counties and numerous hospitals and clinics. Bittner still facilitates one of the groups.
“We got a grant to purchase much of our inventory,” Bittner says. All products and services, including meetings with navigators, massage therapy and measurement for prostheses or bras, are free, provided by volunteers.
Women also like to sit in the living room in front of the fireplace and share their experiences and advice with each other.
It’s a place that Charlene Brady would have loved.