Holding Our Mission -- and Her Oncology Patients -- in Her Heart

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 10, Volume 10, Issue 1

An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Carolyn Harshbarger, BSN, RN, OCN [ St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis, Indiana ]

Melissa Andres, BSN, RN, OCN and Carolyn Harshbarger, BSN, RN, OCN PHOTO BY BEN SEARS

Carolyn Harshbarger has been a nurse for 30 years, and currently is an oncology nurse navigator at St. Vincent Indianapolis. I am the manager for the team, and I have had the pleasure of working with Carolyn for the past four years. The role of the patient navigator is to assist patients who have barriers to care, to provide clinical and psychosocial support and to help streamline care. It’s to make sure that no one is lost in the system and everyone has access to the care they deserve. Carolyn goes above and beyond to assist patients with their complex needs, and she always does it with compassion, reverence, integrity and dedication.

Carolyn recently had a patient who had many barriers to care. He is a refugee, speaks an uncommon language (a native dialect within his country), has a low education level, lacks transportation, income and insurance. He was diagnosed with a head/neck cancer that was curable but required extensive surgery, daily radiation for several weeks and many cycles of chemotherapy. Carolyn tirelessly searched for multiple resources to assist him and never gave up.

She found and coordinated a translator to make sure we could communicate effectively with him and he with us. This alone was a difficult task because he cannot read or write in his own rare language. She also coordinated his daily transportation for him and attended all of his treatments, often spending full days with him and staying late in the evenings to be sure he got from one appointment to the next, and then home safely. All of these interventions were complex and difficult to coordinate, but she never wavered. She made sure that the patient made it to every single appointment and that a translator was available to be sure that he understood everything that was discussed and recommended.

Carolyn was the one constant in this patient’s medical care, and they developed a very close bond. Our navigation services typically end when treatment ends, but Carolyn did not let this gentleman go. She knew he was at high risk for a recurrence, and she wanted to be sure he made it to his follow-up appointments. Unfortunately, his cancer recurred. But Carolyn is still there for him. He is now in treatment again, and she has advocated for him, asking the difficult questions about palliative and hospice care.

She has made sure that the patient understands everything so that he can make informed decisions. They communicate through the translator, but also through hand gestures, picture charts, smiles, tears and hugs. He even said “I love you” to her in English, and through the translator has expressed how much he appreciates her and how lost he would be without her. Despite all of his barriers to care, because of Carolyn, he was not lost in translation.

That is just one of many examples of how Carolyn goes above and beyond and why she is so deserving of this award. Carolyn holds our mission in her heart: to serve all persons holistically, especially those who are poor and vulnerable. She is not only a great nurse clinically, but she is also an incredibly compassionate person.

Many of the patients she serves have physical deformities from their cancer or their treatment, are socioeconomically disadvantaged and have high-risk behaviors. She never judges them and treats them all with dignity and respect. She understands that each person is a human being who deserves to have access to the best possible care, regardless of their personal situation. She bonds with them and genuinely gets to know them and their families so that she can care for them — mind, body and spirit. She keeps searching for resources until she finds what they need. If a door is shut, she finds a window. She asks them, “What are your goals?” and “What means the most to you?” That way, her care can be based on what the patient needs, not based on what she or the medical team thinks the patient needs. She holds every patient dear to her heart, just as I know they do her. Carolyn is truly an extraordinary healer.