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From the Times Herald:
Just a few years ago women facing breast cancer were more or less on their own trying to navigate the often troublesome waters of the medical system.Now they have an anchor in Barbara Heinzmann.As a breast care nurse navigator for patients at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, Heinzmann’s job is to steer women in a myriad of directions that will get them to the appointments they will need to reach a proper diagnosis and make informed decisions about treatment, while relieving as many of their anxieties along the way as she can.“I think the most important part of my role is making it easier for women going through something that is very scary,” said Heinzmann, an East Norriton native and registered nurse who earned her degree at West Chester University back when it was still West Chester State College. “For anyone who hears the word, cancer is not something you expect to hear about yourself. I think when you do hear it it’s kind of overwhelming, and to have someone there to help you through that journey and get through it and lift you up when you need it is a good thing.”But possibly nothing elevates a patient’s spirit as much as hearing Heinzmann tell them that they are, in fact, looking at a healthy, confidant and attractive eight-year breast cancer survivor.“When I share with them that I am a survivor, just to see the look on their faces is to see that here I am, I’ve gone through the journey and I understand where they are … and that things do get better,” she said. “It’s not so overwhelming for them when they find that out.”Heinzmann spent the bulk of her career with the old Montgomery Hospital in Norristown and spent the past year as a dedicated nurse navigator splitting her time between Einstein Medical Center Montgomery and the Breast Health Center just down the road on West Germantown Pike.“Everything is very patient-centered, making everything happen quickly for patients,” Heinzmann said. “I’m here for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and women who have abnormal mammograms and may not end up having breast cancer but just need some guidance through the system, possibly to set up a biopsy to see what the finding is.”Heinzmann then makes sure they see a surgeon in a timely manner.“If their abnormality ends up being nothing, they can be relieved sooner,” she said. “And if it’s cancer they will know what they’re dealing with and can take it on and figure out the plan to go forward with treatment.”Heinzmann, who lives in Souderton with her husband, Herb, and son, Eric, steps in after a mammogram reveals a suspicious finding and gets the ball rolling on the treatment process at a faster clip than patients could probably accomplish on their own.“So they’re not having days and days of worry,” she said with a knowing smile.The fairly new but growing field of patient navigation was started by a federal act in 2005 after a government panel determined there were seemingly endless barriers to obtaining cancer care across socioeconomic lines.“Not every hospital has a nurse navigator, but more are incorporating them,” Heinzmann said. “Different facilities use the navigators in different ways, but mostly they’re used to facilitate things for the patient, to get from point A to point B during treatment and trying to decrease the stress of the diagnosis of breast cancer, and also trying to figure out what the stressors are for that person as they’re going through their journey.”Heinzmann was 44 years old when she had a double mastectomy and received treatment at Montgomery Hospital Medical Center, where she worked as a case manager at the time.Despite not having a nurse navigator like herself to lean on, she made it through the ordeal with the support of her husband and son, who was 10 years old at the time of her diagnosis.“When I went through breast cancer eight years ago, I didn’t have a nurse navigator to help me through it, and I really thought I’d be able to lend personal observations from my journeys and also my medical background as a nurse to help patients through it now,” Heinzmann said.Not surprisingly, not all women are the same in their need for automatic support from a relative stranger.“Not every woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer has the same comfort and need for the role,” Heinzmann said. “But when you get the diagnosis there’s an emotional part of that and there might also be financial difficulty because you’re not able to work as much as you did before, depending on what your treatment is. So we’re there to help with that.”With the help of the Einstein Montgomery staff, Heinzmann directs patients to a variety of community resources available to them, including transportation to medical appointments and funding they may need to get through some tough times.“Being able to pay your rent is a daunting thought if you’re missing a lot of work,” Heinzmann said. “Not everyone has sick days for every day that they need off.”Recently Heinzmann and her colleagues hosted a Unite for HER open house, where 29 women became acquainted with the nonprofit’s roundup of therapies to complement their medical treatments, including nutrition, acupuncture, massage, yoga, counseling and other wellness-enhancing disciplines.“It was a really moving day and it was so nice to see the people that I’ve been following smile. It was healing. I’ve already had people who attended that who told me they want to volunteer when they’re finished their treatments,” she added.That afternoon Heinzmann had visited patients going through chemotherapy and helped some to zero in on the most flattering wigs.“For many women, the worst thing about having chemo is that they will lose their hair, and usually with breast cancer they do lose their hair. That’s hard for them but I try to make it light and easy for them,” she said. “Everything is about trying to ease the burdens for women.”Heinzmann, who has spent many a Saturday morning in May strolling to raise money for Einstein Montgomery’s cancer programs in the annual Walk Through the Park, meets regularly with nurse navigators from other area hospitals.“It’s a good way for us to find out what the needs of patients are,” she said. “I can see that the role of nurse navigator will expand. Each day I come in and find a different need and have to figure out how to troubleshoot that.”Not that she necessarily has to be on the clock when coming up with those inevitable solutions.Although not allowed to receive calls from patients after hours, Heinzmann admitted to “going home and thinking about them and making notes about them. It’s always with me, but in a good way,” Heinzmann said, smiling.“This is truly the best job I’ve ever had. I really love what I’m doing now.”