When Co-Workers Become Caregivers

When Deb Olson rolled over one morning before getting ready for work at Altru, she felt a lump on the side of her breast. “They say if you feel a lump, it shouldn’t hurt,” she said. “This one did.” She continued to the shower, where she did a breast exam. She still felt the lump.

Once at work in cardiac short stay, she told a co-worker and friend, Rhonda Tibert, about the lump. “She suggested I get it looked at soon,” said Deb. “I was lucky that Dr. [Heidi] Philpot could see me right away.” Dr. Philpot, a family medicine physician, ordered a mammogram, and then a biopsy.

“It’s a family here,” explained Deb. “You get to know everyone and get used to seeing each other on a regular basis. You trust them.”

Trust is key for Deb now, as her Altru co-workers have become her caregivers. Deb was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive breast cancer in November 2010 at the age of 45. Dr. Brad Belluk, general surgery, performed a double mastectomy to rid her of the breast cancer. She received chemotherapy and was then enrolled in a clinical trial and received several more months of chemotherapy with Dr. Daniel Walsh overseeing her care. Dr. Kevin Muiderman, plastic surgery, completed TRAM flap reconstruction, where he used abdominal skin and tissues to reconstruct breasts.

“Dr. Walsh watches me like a hawk,” said Deb. “And that’s a good thing. We have a great relationship and comfort level with each other. It’s the same way with the nurses. They’re awesome and know my personality and that I like to joke around.”

She especially appreciates the involvement of Altru Cancer Center staff. “They are so supportive of everyone who comes in the door,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the care I receive there. It’s remarkable.”

In November 2011, almost a year to the date of her original diagnosis, blood tests showed there was still cancer in her body. Scans showed it had moved to her liver. When oral chemotherapy medication didn’t control the cancer, Wanda DeKrey, an oncology research nurse, helped enroll Deb in another clinical trial.

“She got in at the very last minute,” recalled Wanda. “We knew Deb needed to be in the trial.”

Unfortunately, after a few months of treatment, the cancer quit responding to treatment and started to grow again. Deb is currently receiving chemotherapy to hopefully slow the spread of cancer to other parts of her body. Blood tests help monitor any new growth.

Fighting Spirit
Deb’s oldest daughter, Kayla, believes it’s her mom’s spirit that keeps her going.

“Even though she’s struggling, I know she’s strong,” said Kayla, who is a nurse at Altru. “It helps that I can put on my nursing hat and understand her care a little more. I can help explain things to my sister and dad.” Deb and her husband, Randy, have been married 26 years. Their younger daughter, Leah, is a freshman in college.

Dr. Walsh has consulted with Dr. Charles Loprinzi, a leading breast cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic, via eConsults to make sure the care Deb receives in Grand Forks is what she would receive if she traveled to Rochester.

“With helpful information provided by the local physician, we may find there are questions we can answer that do not require the patient to come to Mayo Clinic,” said Dr. Loprinzi. “We’re using eConsults with select institutions who want to work with us to improve the delivery of health care.”

“I feel even more confident about the care I’m receiving knowing Mayo is involved,” she said. “If I had to travel for care, my kids and husband couldn’t be with me as much. We don’t have travel expenses and yet I’m still receiving Mayo-level care.”

“I have stage four cancer,” said Deb. “I’ve gone through a lot, but I have to keep fighting and doing whatever I can to keep living.”

Have you or a loved one had an eConsult? How did you benefit from keeping care at home? Leave a reply. 

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