After winning first prize in 3rd grade for a presentation on the digestive tract, it was no surprise that Amy Depue, RN, MSN, OCN, CBCN, would someday work in the medical field.
For the past 14 years at UNC, Depue has served breast cancer patients at the North Carolina Basnight Cancer Hospital as a nurse navigator, helping patients and caregivers organize multifaceted cancer treatments.
In her role, she answers messages, coordinates services, and provides consistency to providers but she claims her most crucial task is to listen.
“Some of the time it is listening to what is not stated, the question that is not asked, or the fear that is unacknowledged by the caregiver, the patient, or the family. Sometimes there is great value in just being still and listening,” Depue said.
Here’s a few minutes with Amy Depue.
Talk about your journey to this point in your career
My journey started quite some time ago, before college actually. My mother was an RN, and I was fascinated by what her calling meant. I had a fascination with the human body, won first prize in the 3rd grade for presenting a poster about the digestive tract (!), but unfortunately, when I said that I also wanted to be an RN I was told that I needed to study hard and become a physician. Long story short, I became a social worker working as a child abuse investigator.
Several years later, my brother sent me an email from China where he was on sabbatical learning Chinese and teaching English, encouraging me to “do what your heart tells you to do” (in a much more eloquent way), so I enrolled in nursing school. Mind you, I was married and had 5 children at that point, so I thought I was going to be a labor and delivery nurse, but the moment I stepped onto an oncology floor, I was thunderstruck; I finally felt at home, at peace, and I knew that I had finally found what I had been searching for.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as a nurse navigator, in particular for the breast cancer program?
I didn’t know I wanted to make a career in navigation for a few years after I started nursing. I was assigned to an oncology med surg unit. At that time, patients needing chemotherapy were also part of the floor’s population, so my patients were a combination of all types of cancers, some solid, some post op, some liquid heme, some comfort care/hospice patients. One day I was walking past a patient’s room, just before I started my shift. I glanced in and saw a female patient in bed and another person I presumed was her husband. They were both crying quietly. After I had clocked in, I found that they were on my list of patients for that day. The patient was an elderly woman who was experiencing a recurrence of an original breast cancer, but also had a new primary breast cancer. When I entered the room to do my initial assessment I was struck by the incredible, palpable amount of stress and depression in that room.
The patient would not respond to my questions or statements, and her husband was also very hesitant to speak. All of a sudden, the husband blurted out, “What am I supposed to do to help her? I don’t know how to help her,” and then began to cry. I did the only thing I knew to do, I pulled up a chair and sat down. Through their grief they were unable to reach that point that our patients need to reach, coming together to provide each other with comfort, strength, hope but mostly to be there for each other. There is more to this [interaction], but I was left with a realization that having good care means reaching beyond the science and the skill of the physician, it was all about being able to push past the negative responses and provide an environment that was safe, trusting and non-judgmental.
Breast cancer has always been an interest. My paternal grandmother died from metastatic breast cancer; my sister is a breast cancer survivor. I can’t think of anyone who has not been affected by breast cancer in some fashion.
Mostly because I was unable to help my sister through her journey and I was too young to understand my grandmother’s needs. We all need assistance at some time or another. This is how I can lend support to those who need it, even if that means doing the work behind the scenes.
What is your most memorable moment with a patient?
My most memorable moment with a patient, and there have been many memorable moments and memorable patients, has to be when I was driving to a family gathering to celebrate my son’s graduation from Marine boot camp. My phone rang and it was the husband of one of my patients who said someone wanted to talk to me. My patient’s voice came over the phone and she said she just wanted to tell me how much it meant to her that she had someone in her journey who was always there and present. She passed away about 36 hours later. I have had a number of patients with whom I have had special moments. Each of those moments has taught me something, but mostly that we all need that thread of human kindness.
What advice do you have for someone entering this line of work?
For anyone who may be interested in navigation (and it isn’t only oncology that uses navigation-type patient care), I would say to first get some experience as a clinic or bedside nurse, find out which aspect of nursing is your passion, then investigate navigation. Just as there are many avenues in nursing, navigation is branching out in many different avenues as well. Then prepare to learn all you can, all the time, and remember that the patient comes first.
What was your very first job?
I have worked in several fields from food service to real estate, child abuse investigator to nurse and many in between. All of them were service oriented, which means they have all been beneficial to my oncology nurse navigation career. My very first job was in the fourth or fifth grade as a librarian’s helper. She paid me $5 to help put books back on the shelf and to check out books. It was short lived, but a great way to start learning how some of the world works.
What motivates you every day?
The thing that motivates me is the ripple effect that one act of kindness can have towards a patient, which ultimately creates a unique positive affect for many other patients. One of the reasons I love UNC is this tsunami effect, and these happen every day by so many, for so many.