‘Someone in my corner:’ Lung cancer health navigators on crusade to save lives one patient at a time

‘Someone in my corner:’ Lung cancer health navigators on crusade to save lives one patient at a time

When Jim Mazurek was diagnosed with Stage 3A lung cancer, he knew doctors and nurses would be by his side for care and treatments, but he did not know a superhero would be among them.

“Her uniform should include a cape,” Mazurek said of Tracy Hughes, his lung cancer health navigator.

Hughes, who works with lung cancer patients at Community Hospital in Munster and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, is one of six cancer navigators with Community Healthcare System.

“I love this job because I am able to give the patients compassionate care,” Hughes said. “Jim felt that closeness with me, which is the whole point of the navigation. He would call me when he needed me. That is so wonderful because it helps the patient have a successful journey. I love to hear the patient say they feel relieved to have someone help them because they are so overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin.”

Relief is what Mazurek said he felt when Hughes was there for him.

He never had heard of a nurse navigator until Hughes called him to introduce herself, explain what she does and offer to help him through his cancer treatment. At first, he did not think he would need the extra assistance. But he soon realized he had a reliable, caring and attentive friend in Hughes.

“Every time I called her she either had an answer for the questions I had or she would call me back with the answer,” Mazurek said. “She made this so much easier. I was not alone. There was someone in my corner.”

Dawn Garmon also found comfort when Hughes reached out to offer help when she was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at St. Mary Medical Center.

Garmon’s cancer was caught after she had her routine lung cancer screening offered through Community Healthcare System.

“I get the lung screening every year,” said Garmon, who has smoked most of her life. This time, her oncology team identified two spots on her lung and immediately got to work on treating her cancer. 

Lung cancer often stays silent until a late stage, which is when symptoms usually occur. Low Dose CT (LDCT) lung cancer screening has proven to be successful at detecting lung cancer at early stages, before any symptoms begin.  

Hughes has been amazed by Garmon’s determination, positive attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to face the disease head-on.

“From the time she got her lung screening results, to seeing her oncologist, to getting things scheduled was within 48 hours,” Hughes said. “She has been an excellent patient. She is trying very hard to quit smoking and would always accept any appointment that was made for her because she knew how important it was to get everything started right away.”

Garmon said she would recommend anyone fighting lung cancer to take advantage of the navigator program offered through Community Healthcare System.

“You are so overwhelmed to start with,” she said. “But this whole process moved along quickly. Doctors and nurses all worked together as a team. Right away they met, discussed my case and had an action plan. It felt like I had someone really looking out for me.”

All Community Healthcare System CT sites (at Community Hospital, St. Catherine Hospital, St. Mary Medical Center and Community Stroke & Rehabilitation Center) have earned the GO2 Foundation’s Lung Screening Center of Excellence status, which ensures use of best practices. 

With Community Healthcare System’s focus on excellence in lung cancer care, the GO2 Foundation also has awarded Community Hospital, St. Catherine Hospital and St. Mary Medical Center the Lung Cancer Care Continuum Centers of Excellence designation.

Patients like Garmon and Mazurek learned firsthand why the hospitals and their medical staffs have earned these prestigious designations for lung cancer care.

“The doctors and nurses were very helpful, and I was so impressed with them,” Mazurek said. “Tracy was Johnny-on-the-spot. I really could not have done it without her. She would smooth everything over, and she had a good attitude while she was doing it. She was a beacon. She got me through.” 

Not all superheroes are out front. Patty Higgins is a nurse navigator who works behind the scenes. Higgins oversees the Low Dose CT – Lung Cancer Screening Program. 

“We are the largest lung cancer screening program in Northwest Indiana and will do 2,000 screenings this year. All of them are my patients,” Higgins said. “Most of my navigation time is spent on patients with larger nodules needing more immediate follow-up.”

She said the ultimate goal for the oncology team is to get patients diagnosed at an early stage.  

“That is what lung cancer screening is about,” she said. “I am very pleased that Community Healthcare System has partnered with EON, which gives me real-time access to all follow-up scans for every patient. This allows me to get that result to the provider immediately and prevents delays. I feel so lucky to work with a healthcare system that is invested so deeply in the most state-of-the-art equipment and software to save lives.”

For more information about lung care at the hospitals of Community Healthcare System, visit COMHS.org/services/lung-care