Achieving a Childhood Dream by Caring for Patients With Cancer

Extraordinary Healer®, CURE® Extraordinary Healer® Vol. 16, Volume 16,

From her earliest childhood days, Tammy Allred, RN, OCN, had a vision for her future: to soothe and to heal.

From her earliest childhood days, Tammy Allred, RN, OCN, had a vision for her future: to soothe and to heal. But her vision took an unusual turn, shaped by her tomboyish tendencies fueled by growing up on a North Carolina dairy farm.

“I always wanted to be a nurse, but I also wanted to be a truck driver, so my dream was to have a mobile clinic to help treat kids in indigent communities around the U.S.,” she said.

She achieved the first part of dream and graduated from nursing school in 1985, but the allure of driving a mobile clinic had long since passed. What piqued her interest after graduation was the newly emerging specialty of cancer care, in which patients were being treated separately from other medical patients. The oncology wing at Alamance County Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, was under construction, and nurses were being certified in chemotherapy administration and related care.

At the time, most patients with cancer died of the disease. Tammy saw oncology care as an opportunity to heal the human spirit, if not their disease.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who if you tell me I can’t do something, you better tell me why or I’m going to do it anyway,” Tammy said. “One of my first experiences was with a patient who had terminal lung cancer. He and his fiancee wanted to get married, but he was in the hospital dying and wouldn’t be able to go home. So we set out to make it happen. We filled up the day room with flowers from other patients who had donated them for the wedding, and we made my patient a boutonniere and his fiancee a bouquet from the donated flowers. The witnesses were all the other patients who could come from their rooms. The couple got married in the day room. It was my way of saying to that cancer, ‘We’re not going to let you take everything away from him.’ He passed away two days later. We couldn’t do much for patients with cancer in those days, but we could make a difference during the time they had left.”

For the next five years, Tammy worked in the radiation clinic and both inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy clinics. She then worked in hospice before moving into nursing management, but the call to heal people brought her back to patient care.

She took a job with UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, moving from infusion to thoracic oncology research and later entering the emerging field of nurse navigators, a job she’s had for 16 years.

“It’s my dream job,” Tammy said. “I look at every one of my patients as if they were my family members, and I treat them as I would be treated. I build close relationships with patients, and they know they can call me day or night if they need anything. One of my patients with metastatic cancer and kidney failure totaled his pickup truck while driving to dialysis. He talked to me about ending his life the day he totaled his car because he felt like he was fighting a losing battle, having cancer, kidney disease and, now, no way to get to dialysis. We are working to arrange for in-home peritoneal treatment, and I’m working with agencies to get him a new truck. We saved him by showing him we care.”

Another patient, a 36-year-old mother with a rare cancer who drove a bus for a university system, was in dire straits with not enough food and no money to buy her 12-year-old daughter gifts for Christmas. Tammy and her co-workers organized a fundraising drive, bought all of the presents on the daughter’s wish list and made sure the family had grocery store gift vouchers for food. She came back after the new year and thanked Tammy for making her last wish come true.

Having done so much for her patients, Tammy still doesn’t see her efforts as giving but as receiving.

“I get more from my patients than I could ever give to them,” Tammy said. “My reward is that they fight harder and have a better quality of life knowing that’s one less thing to worry about because I have them covered. I always fight for the underdog.”

Her patients and colleagues rave about her altruistic spirit and seemingly limitless capacity to care for others and fulfill their needs.

From a patient’s family member:

“Tammy Allred is my mom’s nurse navigator who we actually refer to as ‘our angel on earth!’ She has an abundance of skilled knowledge and compassion for her patients and their family members. Over the past two years, she has given us many tips and tricks, from helping with Mom’s esophageal burns to ways of overcoming dehydration from the chemotherapy. We are thankful for the time she’s spent answering countless emails, taking calls, and coordinating the innumerable doctor visits. A small cell lung cancer diagnosis comes with lots of unfamiliar and extremely scary territories. Thankfully, Tammy has kept us calm and guided us during the most difficult times of treatment. She fearlessly serves others as she is our light in this darkness. Her famous words to me when I’m spinning out of control are, ‘Just breathe!’”

From a patient:

“Tammy Allred has been a source of constant support from the day I received my diagnosis. She makes herself readily available whenever I need her assistance. Her assistance goes beyond medical care; it is also emotional support. I wouldn’t be as stable and confident without her.”

From a physician colleague:

“Tammy’s human drive and inhuman stamina allows UNC to bring to our patients the best of a large academic system while feeling small and friendly like a neighborhood office. Optimal care of patients with lung cancer is complex and requires a large team engaging in multidisciplinary collaboration. Tammy runs our tumor board, where every thoracic oncology specialist is present to discuss patients. She serves as a single point of contact for patients and is available to them 24/7. She also serves as the conduit to ensure doctors are connected to each other, and, when necessary, physically hands us a live phone to have a conversation.”

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