Patient navigator Karen Allen educates patients and learns from them too

She chose nursing as a second career, and now she serves in a role that is integral to patient care and well-being.

Karen Allen, R.N., oncology patient navigator for Norton Cancer Institute, sees the patient navigator role as a “bridge across the canyon of uncertainty” for patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer.

“I imagine my family or myself hearing the words, ‘You have cancer,’ and the feelings that would overflow,” Karen said. “Sometimes we simply sit with a patient and listen. At other times we reach out to people as they take that first step into the unknown, and we walk beside them.”

You wouldn’t know it listening to her depth of knowledge and genuine compassion, but nursing is a second career for Karen. She spent 20 years working in local government and health insurance before she started taking care of patients. Now, she serves in a role that is integral to patient care and well-being.

“People are often blindsided by a cancer diagnosis. We come into their life when they are most vulnerable and need prompt intervention,” Karen said. “We offer education, guidance, reassurance and assistance on this often-complicated path of cancer treatment.”

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According to Karen, patient navigators are a constant point of contact throughout patients’ journeys, often getting to know the patient, as well as his or her family, friends and even their pets. Patient navigators can help patients overcome any barriers to care, expedite appointments and celebrate milestones and successes like improved laboratory results, scans and diagnostic tests.

Related Content: Q&A with breast health patient navigator Missy Ulfe

Also: Brain cancer support: Nurse cares for patients and their families throughout their cancer journey

“Personally, I enjoy working with patients over time so I can get to know them and learn from them,” Karen said. “I have a strong commitment to seeing things through and appreciate the work and sacrifice that people and their caregivers devote to one another. I enjoy seeing people live in the present moment — laughing, joking, celebrating and living right now — even when the future is in question.”

Karen has learned a lot in her role as a patient navigator and from the patients with whom she has worked.

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this work is that you have to live in the present moment, because that is all we have,” Karen said. “There is no delaying life, fun, love, vacation, until the timing is perfect. You have to give it all you’ve got on a Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the winter when the sun is ready to set and your car is frozen and you haven’t planned dinner yet and you still have last week’s laundry to do. You have to show up every day.

“And when you can’t show up,” Karen said, “enjoy spending the weekend in your pajamas reading and scrolling through Pinterest.”

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