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The North Star of Oncology Nursing

Maria Malloy, a registered oncology nurse and caregiver at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, is nominated her colleague Eleanor Miller for CURE®’s 2019 Extraordinary Healer® Award in this essay.
BY Eleanor Miller
PUBLISHED June 29, 2019
Patients often start their phone call to Maria Malloy, B.S.N., RN, OCN, CBCN, by saying “I was just told to call you for help” and end the conversation with “You are like a hug through the phone.” Patients know they have an ally and advocate when they call Maria, our incredible breast cancer nurse navigator at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.

Maria is able to make an impact on a patient’s healing in many ways in her navigator role. She starts patients on a journey of physical healing by facilitating access and coordination of care at pivotal moments, as well as by offering emotional healing through the compassion and calm presence she provides, often before they step through our doors. Speaking with Maria prior to seeing a provider not only starts their treatment process but also brings down the level of anxiety they feel, because they know someone on the inside has their back. Patients can get initial questions answered, the right appointments coordinated and thoughts collected in order to come in prepared to meet the providers. Her compassion is lasting, as patients call or email her throughout the treatment plan to follow up and ask more questions to make sure they are on track.

From left: Eleanor Miller, M.S.N, RN, OCN, CBCN, and Maria Malloy, B.S.N., RN, OCN, CBCN. Photo by Konnor J Durante.

Our health system is large and complex. It’s not always an easy one to figure out, but Maria is that kind voice advocating and guiding her patients as they enter this system. As one patient recently wrote, Maria is “a treasure in this day of voicemail.” She is persistent, as our cancer center spans locations across the region, with different providers, preferences and processes. Maria is knowledgeable about it all, including the evolving treatment paradigms, and is able to work through the internal complexities on behalf of her patients to shine our best light and ultimately get the patients what they need. Her navigation ranges from “simply” offering a breast surgery appointment with one of our providers closer to the patient’s home, instead of in the city, to assessing outside providers’ recommendations for the patient and negotiating what she needs at our center (not an easy feat with dozens of doctors and sites).

Maria’s prompt and reliable attention to her patients is one of her greatest strengths, as she knows they are anxious to speak with someone — now — and get a plan together. When Maria joined the breast team, she hit the ground running to evolve the role and position herself by building relationships and being available to patients at any point along the way. For patients who receive diagnoses internally, she has established a process with the radiology and OB-GYN teams, through which they refer directly to her (even as pathology is pending), so she can follow along and contact patients as soon as they are given results. This not only ensures that the patients are not lost to follow-up but also helps avoid delays in care. It also takes the pressure off patients who are trying to figure out what to do next. For patients who initiate calls through our main phone numbers, Maria is consulted to offer guidance if there is any question, uncertainty or complex need. Even if the appointment is set, the intakes are routed to her for an extra set of eyes to ensure that patients are set up appropriately and to identify new patients she should reach out to for an introduction and education.

Throughout my time working with Maria, I’ve admired the deep well of patience, compassion and energy she has for her patients. These qualities don’t stop at the end of the day, as she is also the wife of a patient with cancer, and she maintains the same level of effort for her husband’s care. She has described her experience as a caregiver as humbling, one that will ultimately make her a better nurse. Even as she is caring for her husband, she remains reflective and grateful, maintaining her passion for oncology nursing and the patients she serves. She does this because it’s been her life’s work. She embodies what we all should strive to be: passionate, energetic, supportive and grateful.

Her resilience and stamina are likely due to her athletic skill and priority of self-care, as exercise is very important to her — she could beat any of us in a footrace. I think this lends itself well to her ability to care for her patients and her husband. Despite the stressful conversations she may have, one after another; the complex environment in which we work; and the thousands of patients she has taken care of over these past few years, Maria remains the North Star of oncology nursing. She remembers that her patients are scared, uncertain and overwhelmed. We know as oncology nurses that healing of the body is not the only thing that needs to occur. Maria’s strength and skill as an oncology nurse target all aspects of healing — mind, body and spirit. I can’t think of another oncology nurse more deserving than our own Maria Malloy.

Please accept this nomination of one of our brightest stars at Penn Medicine for the Extraordinary Healer® Award, as Maria’s energy, patience and passion are contagious among her patients and colleagues. She is the fierce advocate and ally you need when you are facing a cancer diagnosis. Our providers, teammates and, most of all, her patients, would say the same. We are grateful and lucky to have her on our team.
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