Of all the responsibilities Ashley Woodall and Denise Williamson complete as Breast Health Nurses at St. Mary’s Hospital, perhaps the most important task they fulfill is holding a hand.
Woodall and Williamson are specially trained nurses that assist patients when breast cancer is diagnosed. They make the initial phone call, assist physicians and stay close with patients through all procedures, including biopsies and surgeries.
And many times, it’s an extended hand that means the most.
“I’ve held a lot of hands,” Woodall, a registered nurse who has served as a Breast Health Nurse at St. Mary’s for the last six years. “Afterwards, I’ve had so many people tell me that the simple touch of a hand makes all the difference to make them feel comfortable.”
Williamson, who’s been on the job for about two months, has already steadied many an anxious patient undergoing a biopsy or other procedure.
“I’ve already done a lot of hand holding,” she said. “It has been busy but that’s a good thing. It shows me what expectations I need to have, and Ashley is a wonderful teacher. I think I’ve been a nurse longer than her but she knows breast health. She’s so knowledgeable about everything. I want to make sure I cover everything she covers. It’s been really good.”
That personal touch is not uncommon at St. Mary’s, and it’s just one of the many ways Breast Health Nurses help their patients. Woodall and Williamson act as counselors, offering information that helps patients understand their situation and their next steps, and they’ve been helpful as “navigators,” helping post-surgery patients with the health care system.
“We’re able to carry that through their whole continuum of care, and we talk to them about the breast cancer and we visit them on the day of surgery with a gift bag that has a comfort pillow, drain bags, information about breast cancer, and a one-hour massage.
“The big thing is we show compassion and we listen. We’re a shoulder for them to lean on in a very difficult time. Afterwards, we offer that we’re here through the whole process. We act as breast health navigators, helping them navigate through the system and be their contact person through their whole care. I’ll be honest – some people definitely use that. They’ll call us with problems and we help them out.”
Both Woodall and Williamson say part of what brought them to St. Mary’s was the effect breast cancer has had on loved ones. Woodall’s paternal grandmother was diagnosed at the age of 61 and died two years later. Williamson’s mother was diagnosed about 10 years ago, was treated at St. Mary’s and her cancer is now in remission. As is the case with almost everyone, breast cancer hits close to home.
“What I try to always remind myself is this is most rewarding job ever,” Woodall, an Oconee County native, said. “We are there for the patients in their greatest time of need, one of the lowest points in their life. We’re there to be the positive influence for them.
“We’re able to let them know it’s going to be OK. The prognosis for breast cancer now is good because we have such good technology and we find things so early. When I’m calling a patient, I have the positives in my mind. We sit down and talk about it and Denise writes all the positive things on sticky notes because those are the things the patients need to know.”
“(Cancer is) a horrible thing, but you’ll meet positive people and there’s going to be something positive about it,” Williamson said. “You can always find a positive – you may have to search for it and somebody may have to point it out, but it’s going to be positive.”
Woodall says because she makes more than a dozen calls each week that signal the beginning of new relationships, she always keeps her own family in mind.
“I try to treat our patients like they’re family,” she said. “I wanted them to be treated like I’d want my mother or my sister or my aunt to be treated. If you keep that in the back of your mind, you won’t get into the idea that this is just an everyday thing. You’ve got to remember that this is a life you’re about to touch and you’ve got to tell them some news that’s going to be very hard to take.
“I often have relationships with survivors. I run into them at the grocery store. It feels wonderful. They always hug me and I hug them and it’s always a good thing. It’s not awkward – it’s good.”
For more information, visit www.stmarysathens.org/services/women-and-maternity/imaging-center or call 706-389-2309.