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First and goal: Navigators support patients from diagnosis through recovery

January 11, 2017

In football, the offensive line’s job is to protect the quarterback. And, at NCH, it’s the patient navigator’s job to assist, support and ultimately protect the patient.

Jeff Jones knows firsthand the difference a patient navigator can make when the opponent you are fighting is cancer. “I feel like I have a whole football team behind me fighting this tumor,” he says.

Jones was enjoying the summer weather and time with his seven grandchildren when he started experiencing chest pains. The 62-year-old Schaumburg man did not waste any time scheduling an appointment with his doctors. Neeraj Desai, M.D., an interventional pulmonologist at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH), performed a bronchoscopy and detected a tumor on his lung.

It was a startling diagnosis for Jones, who learned the tumor was about three inches long and near the entrance to his lung. Learning that he had stage 2 lung cancer tested Jones’ easy-going, positive nature. “I went from being scared, to being mad to being sad,” Jones says. “I am a positive guy, but it is easy to get down when you hear a diagnosis like this.”

Luckily, NCH’s patient navigators answered the call to help Jones and his family on the journey from diagnosis to recovery. NCH patient navigators educate patients on cancer types and treatment options, coordinate office visits, facilitate communication between the patient and healthcare team and provide a personal touch by visiting patients and assessing their needs.

“The patient navigators at NCH held my hand through every step,” Jones says. “Without their support, I would have felt lost. They gave me a good idea about what to expect.”

Gary Chmielewski, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at NCH, explained to Jones that he was not a good candidate for surgery because of the location of the tumor. Dr. Chmielewski recommended shrinking the tumor with chemotherapy and radiation.

NCH patient navigator Juli Aistars, R.N., APN, eased Jones’ concerns and took time to explain why surgery was not the best option.

As a patient navigator, Aistars provides emotional support, coordinates care and makes sure patients get to their next step in treatment quickly. She navigates care for about 200 NCH patients each year and knows the importance of reassuring patients.

“With a cancer diagnosis, patients find themselves in the middle of a crisis, and they often can’t deal with all of the decisions that need to be made,” Aistars says. “My goal is to meet with patients immediately and make sure their needs are met – like scheduling appointments, working on insurance coverage and knowing they have transportation to the hospital.”

Jones says he is grateful for Aistars’ support and efforts during a difficult time. “It all started with the navigator. Juli made it easy for me to stay positive,” he says.

The fight is paying off. After one round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, NCH doctors told Jones the tumor is shrinking. With another round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment scheduled, Jones is hoping he is one step closer to recovery.

Aistars says seeing a patient respond to treatment after a cancer diagnosis is rewarding. “It is extremely fulfilling to see Jeff feeling so good,” she says. “He has hope, and it changed his outlook on life.”

Jones now has a clear view of the end zone and is ready to give high-fives to the NCH team who is helping him cross the goal line.

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