Meet a Mesothelioma Nurse: Colleen Norton

Colleen Norton

We recently spoke with mesothelioma nurse Colleen Norton, BSN, RN, of the University of Maryland to ask her some questions about her role in the field in honor of National Nurses Week and National Cancer Research Month. Here’s what she had to say:

At what institution do you work and what is your role there?

I work for the Division of Thoracic Surgery at The University of Maryland Medical Center. My role here is the Nurse Navigator for the mesothelioma program. My role in the program is to be the point of contact for every patient that comes to The University of Maryland Medical Center. Any phone call that comes in from a mesothelioma patient is transferred directly to my phone. I talk to the patient about their diagnosis, obtain their history of how they came to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and schedule them for an initial consultation. I then call and obtain all of the patient’s records as well as scans and pathology slides so that I can prepare a write up for our weekly Mesothelioma Multi-Disciplinary Conference.

I moderate a weekly Multi-Disciplinary Mesothelioma Tumor Board that includes Thoracic Surgery (Dr. Friedberg), Surgical Oncology (Dr. Alexander), Medical Oncology (Dr. Miller, Dr. Zandberg and Dr. Hausner), Radiation Oncology (Dr. Badiyan and Dr. Simone), Pulmonology (Dr. Sachdeva and Dr. Pickering) and other members include Pathology and Radiology. In addition to moderating each session, I document the treatment plan each discipline recommends for the patient. For pleural mesothelioma patients, I follow them throughout every aspect of their treatment plan. I am there at the initial consultation to answer questions and I will help them navigate through their treatment plan whether it be surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy with protons. After patients complete therapy I follow up around every 2 months to help schedule their next scan and appointment. My goal for our program is to make it so that all a patient will have to do is show up for their appointments. I want our patients’ experiences with all aspects of their treatment to be as easy as possible.

I am also actively involved in our National Mesothelioma Virtual Tissue Bank. I consent patients, retrieve tissue, update the registry and keep track of all the patients we have collected tissue from for our Tissue Bank.

My role also includes managing all pleural drains (teaching patients and staff, ordering supplies, problem solving any drain issues, and monitoring each patient with their output). I also work very closely with our marketing department here at The University of Maryland Medical Center to help build our website presence and website information as well as news releases.

There are so many additional things I do in my role but I have a feeling it would take up too much space!

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a nurse? What is the most difficult?

One of the most rewarding as well as most difficult aspect of being a nurse is caring for someone at the most vulnerable time in their life. Being there to walk a patient through all the steps of their care from diagnosis to their follow up care is a wonderful process that I thoroughly enjoy. Working with patients that have been given the diagnosis of mesothelioma is heartbreaking, but being there to help guide patients and their families through every aspect of their treatment is unbelievably gratifying. I spend so much time getting to know my patients separately from their diagnosis. This group of patients have been handed the worst diagnosis and what shocks me every single time is how grateful they are that our program is here to help.

As rewarding and wonderful being a nurse has been, there are certain times that being a nurse is extremely difficult. Working with a cancer such as mesothelioma can be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting and demanding. Mesothelioma is a tough cancer and there is a lot of heartache involved and trying to find a balance to remain positive and upbeat can be difficult at times. However, I cannot think of any other subset of patients and family members that I would want to work with.

Why did you decide to become a nurse and how did you end up working with mesothelioma patients?

In high school, I knew I wanted to work with children but I did not know in what capacity. My mom was a nurse and told me that as a nurse I would have the opportunity to work with children. All through nursing school, my goal was to work with the pediatric oncology population. However, during my senior practicum I did my rotation in Shock Trauma and eventually signed on to work as a nurse in the Trauma Critical Care Unit. I worked at The University of Maryland Medical Shock Trauma Center in Multi-trauma Critical Care and Post Anesthesia Care Unit for nine and a half years. After nine years in trauma, I decided I needed a change in my career, especially a change that would take me off night shift so I could work day shift. One of my friends, who is also a Nurse Practitioner, told me about a Nursing Coordinator/Navigator opening in the Thoracic Surgery Department here at UMMC that she thought would be a perfect fit for the practice and me. She gave the program director, Melissa Culligan, my resume and the next day I had a phone call from Melissa to discuss the position. During my interview, Dr. Friedberg and Melissa both asked me what I knew about mesothelioma.  At that time, the only thing I really knew about mesothelioma was that it was caused by an asbestos exposure due to the commercials I always see on TV. A week later, I was offered the position and I spent the next several weeks learning as much as I could about mesothelioma on the internet so that when I started my new role I would have some knowledge on the disease. However, I quickly learned that there is little educational literature on the internet and much of what I learned about mesothelioma came from listening to and asking questions of Dr. Friedberg, Dr. Alexander, Melissa Culligan and Mary Hesdorffer. They are all a wealth of knowledge and have been instrumental in my success thus far with the program.

Is the reality of nursing what you imagined when you decided to become a nurse?

Not at all. Nursing school did not prepare me for what I would do as a nurse. I do not believe when I decided that I wanted to become a nurse that I fully understood the capacity of what being a nurse would mean. I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to work at a teaching institution, which is also the foremost trauma center in the world, as well as currently working for some of the most innovative Thoracic Surgeons in the field that are constantly teaching me something new. I do not think I would be where I am today if it were not for every single person (doctors, fellow nurses and patients) that stopped to teach me along my journey. Looking back, I did not realize how much I would fall in love with my decision to become a nurse.

What role do nurses play in cancer research and why is it important?

A nurse’s role in cancer research is vital in so many ways. Most importantly, a nurse is a liaison between patients and physicians as well as being the patient advocate. Many patients do not know how to navigate the system and become fearful in so many ways regarding their treatment and the options available to them. A research nurse is there to help direct patients through the unfamiliar territory and answer any questions that they may be having a hard time understanding. In addition, a research nurse will be well informed on treatments and trials because they will ultimately know which patients are appropriate for each specific research trial. I believe that a nurse is essential in making sure that the trials move in the appropriate direction and receive correct data to benefit not only current patients but for any and all future patients that come through our program.

More blog posts in this series:
Meet a Mesothelioma Nurse: Melissa Culligan
Meet a Mesothelioma Nurse: Buerkley Rose

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