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Cholangiocarcinoma Oncology Nurse of Excellence Award recipient discusses nursing at Siteman

Ryan C. Fields, MD, FACS, is pictured with Emily Hemmer, BSN, RN, recipient of the Cholangiocarcinoma Oncology Nurse of... Ryan C. Fields, MD, FACS, is pictured with Emily Hemmer, BSN, RN, recipient of the Cholangiocarcinoma Oncology Nurse of Excellence Award

The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, is one of the 5 largest cancer centers in the United States, treating more than 70,000 patients each year. In 2022, Siteman was named one of the top 10 cancer centers in the country by US News & World Report and is Missouri’s and southern Illinois’ only National Cancer Institute–designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. Each one of its 6 satellite locations in the St. Louis metropolitan area is staffed with world-class oncologists, surgeons, researchers, nurses, radiologists, and cancer professionals who work together to ensure that patients receive the comprehensive care they need close to home.

The Oncology Nurse-APN/PA (TON) recently interviewed Emily Hemmer, BSN, RN, Hepatobiliary Nurse Coordinator at Siteman, who discussed what inspired her to become a nurse coordinator, her day-to-day responsibilities, some of the rewards and challenges of her job, and how it feels to be the recipient of the Cholangiocarcinoma Oncology Nurse of Excellence (ONE) award, which honors outstanding oncology nurses for their dedication to patient care, education, and overall excellence in the field of cholangiocarcinoma.

TON: What inspired you to pursue a career as a nurse coordinator?

Ms Hemmer: In 2013, my father received a liver transplant, which was performed here at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Although I was still in high school at the time, I recognized the important role of the nurse coordinator who listened and cared for my father. She was an amazing patient advocate and an influential part in our transplant journey. I could see that she had a genuine passion for what she was doing and always had her patients’ best interests at heart. This experience helped me to realize that being a nurse coordinator was one of my career goals. Like that nurse coordinator who worked with our family many years ago, I love being the main point of contact for my patients and supporting them and their loved ones throughout their cancer journey.

TON: Can you describe one of your typical workdays at Siteman?

Ms Hemmer: As a nurse coordinator within the hepatobiliary surgery group, I triage a lot of phone calls and provide guidance to patients who have been diagnosed with stomach, liver, pancreas, or small bowel cancers. The majority of these patients are undergoing (or recently underwent) some type of major surgery, such as a large liver resection, a Whipple procedure, total or subtotal gastrectomy, or a bowel resection. The Washington University physicians at Siteman and Barnes-Jewish hospitals deal with these complex cases in high volume.

This group of patients can become very ill very quickly, so intervening in an appropriate and timely manner is crucial for maintaining their well-being and preventing them from becoming even more ill. I perform the necessary assessments to determine whether patients need to be admitted to Barnes-Jewish Hospital or sent to their local emergency department, or whether they can continue to manage their symptoms in an outpatient setting.

Part of my time is also spent seeing patients in our outpatient hepatobiliary surgery clinic at The Center for Advanced Medicine and Barnes-Jewish West County Medical Office Building in St. Louis. This is where we initially meet our patients to discuss their surgical options. We also see them in the postoperative setting to ensure they are on the right path. By attending our clinics, I am able to build a rapport with patients and their family members. I assess their needs and intervene appropriately.

I am also involved in ongoing research at Siteman, and my team hosts a weekly, multidisciplinary conference where we collaborate with physicians and other professionals to determine the best approach to care for our patients.

TON: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Ms Hemmer: I would say that the most rewarding aspect of my job is having the opportunity to interact with patients and their families on numerous levels. When patients come to clinic to discuss surgical treatment options, it can be emotional. This time is likely the most vulnerable moment in their life, but it also provides the patient with a sense of hope. Surgery can be a light at the end of the tunnel, but we give patients a chance of being cured of their cancer. I walk this journey with them, and always try to be present and remain their biggest advocate.

TON: What has been one of the biggest challenges?

Ms Hemmer: Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way we approached our jobs and cared for our patients. We faced many challenges, including how we educate postoperatively and interact with patients and their families. However, this also presented us with unique opportunities for growth, especially in the area of technology. For example, we are developing an interactive tool for patients to have at their fingertips that will help them better understand the various aspects of their surgeries and other treatments.

TON: How did it feel to win the Cholangiocarcinoma ONE award at the 4th Annual Cholangiocarcinoma Summit?

Ms Hemmer: It was such a great honor to win this award, and I would like to thank everyone who nominated me. I would not be where I am today without the support of my team and my family. In addition to my amazing colleagues, I work with a group of highly dedicated and talented physicians, including William G. Hawkins, MD, FACS, Chief, Section of Hepatobiliary-Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Surgery; Ryan C. Fields, MD, FACS, Chief, Section of Surgical Oncology; Dominic Sanford, MD, MPHS, FACS, Assistant Professor of Surgery, Section of Hepatobiliary, Pancreas, and Gastrointestinal Surgery; and Natasha Leigh, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery, Section of Hepatobiliary, Pancreas, and Gastrointestinal Surgery.

The summit itself was thought-provoking and it was very rewarding to see the research being done to help find a cure for this devastating disease. It was great to be given the opportunity to network with colleagues and other oncology professionals, share ideas, and learn what new resources are available to improve the care of patients at our center.

The research presented at the summit also highlighted the fact that we are seeing more therapeutic options for patients with cholangiocarcinoma, including the drug durvalumab (Imfinzi), which was recently approved by the FDA. This drug would not have been approved without the willingness of patients to participate in clinical trials, so I think it is important to acknowledge their contributions.

TON: What is one piece of advice that you would offer other nursing professionals?

Ms Hemmer: I would advise nurses to always strive to be the best they can be and never settle for less. I would encourage them to never give up and to go the extra mile for their patients.

Because nursing can be a very demanding profession, it is also important for nurses to separate their personal life from their professional life and find time to participate in activities that bring them joy. For me, I have recently been exercising more often, because it is a great stress reliever. I also use my 45-minute commute to and from work each day as an opportunity to decompress. But each person needs to figure out what works best for them.