For Ashley Leak Bryant, PhD, RN, OCN, FAAN, recently appointed UNC Lineberger’s assistant director of Cancer Research Training Education Coordination (CRTEC), service in health care is in her blood. Bryant comes from a family of nursing assistants, and taking on this new administrative role is a fitting position as she has been a mentor to other nurses and clinical health professionals for more than a decade.
Bryant got her first taste of clinical care as a candy striper in a Charlotte-area hospital when she was a teenager. And while she enjoyed her volunteer work, she didn’t have plans for college after high school and wanted to open a Wendy’s restaurant franchise in the future. Experiences in junior ROTC and a guidance counselor helped change her mind.
“It was those experiences where I said to myself ‘ah, there’s a brighter future ahead.’ ”
Path to patient care, research and leadership
She enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and applied to nursing school in her sophomore year. A strong family history of cancer brought her to oncology nursing at Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Health, where she cared for patients in the gynecology-oncology unit during her senior year of nursing school.
“I was getting women through this journey and helping them manage their symptoms and mobility. I really wanted to stay at Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Health as an oncology nurse, but preferred to work on the medical oncology unit,” she said. Bryant spent three years on the medical oncology unit while obtaining her master’s degree in nursing administration at UNCG. After graduating with her degree, Bryant taught at Duke University School of Nursing for eight years and worked on their inpatient oncology unit for two years. In 2007, she accepted a position with the inpatient oncology unit at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger.
Bryant has worked at all three comprehensive cancer centers in North Carolina, but has served UNC patients the longest as an inpatient nurse for 15 years. Through her experience providing inpatient cancer care, she saw how older adults with cancer struggled to regain mobility after long periods spent in a hospital bed. Bryant’s interest in addressing this health issue led her to pursue her doctoral degree at the UNC School of Nursing, followed by post doc work at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. “My nursing, clinical, and family experiences informed where I’m at today,” she said. “I’m grounded in clinical experience where I hear the voice of the patient and their care partners.” She continues to provide patient and family care at Transitions LifeCare through its hospice home program.
In addition to her new role with CRTEC, she is a member of the executive team of the UNC Lineberger Equity Council, a group dedicated to making the cancer center a more diverse, equitable and inclusive institution. She is an associate professor and the Anne Belcher Interprofessional Faculty Scholar at the UNC School of Nursing, and together with Deborah K. Mayer, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN, Bryant co-founded the UNC Lineberger, Sylvia Lauterborn, and Warren Piver Oncology Nursing Fellowship.
Global oncology research
She is nationally recognized for her research expertise in adult care, palliative and supportive care, acute myeloid leukemia (AML), interprofessional collaboration, and workforce development. She also has been actively engaged with building oncology nursing capacity and training with Lixin Song, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Jen Hotchkiss, MSN, RN, OCN, at UNC Project Malawi, a major site of UNC global oncology research.
Bryant first became interested in global oncology through a PhD student at the School of Nursing who received the James and Patricia Leak Fund for Nursing Research. Hearing about the student’s life in Malawi, and partnering with Satish Gopal, MD, and Irving Hoffman, PA, MPH, and Malawian delegates that visited UNC in 2018, led her to become a key leader for the project along with Song.
“I have strong collaborators; they are just phenomenal,” Bryant said. “We went to Malawi in December, 2018 and did a needs assessment, and that’s where the collaborative partnership has formed. Since 2018, there have been several collaborative projects, including educational and clinical practice guidelines on managing COVID, cancer related webinars, facilitation of nursing grand rounds, and oncology books gifted from the Oncology Nursing Society. Our goal is to continue to build the capacity of oncology nurses in Malawi, while working and collaborating with them to lead nursing research studies that will improve health outcomes and quality of life.”
There are several research papers in press based on Bryant’s work with Song in Malawi, but her research keeps her close to home, as well. She is working with physical and occupational therapists along with patients and their care partners to improve post-hospital and post-clinic experiences once patients return home.
“It takes a team effort. I believe when you have coordinated care adapted to patient needs, we can have favorable health outcomes, better function and mobility, fewer symptoms, higher quality of life,” she said. “Connecting with people and building relationships is the key to happiness and longevity. And that’s what the therapists do; I could not do this work without this interprofessional team.”
Educating and supporting families
Bryant said it’s important to say that they are partnering with patients and their families to really reflect involvement in their own care. The goal is to prep patients ahead of time for a return home, so they’re better able to manage their care at home and reduce the amount of time for inpatient services.
“We ensure they’re engaged in their own care, and can self-manage their illness. When complications arise, they are better able to identify and address the complications,” she said. “We ensure patients and families have support but can also self-manage some of these areas – physical function and symptoms, equipping patients and their families with knowledge and skills to really better manage at home, so they can reduce the time they’re in the hospital or clinic.”
Bryant also takes time to focus on her family, and she loves nature and enjoys time with her husband, Owen, and three children, Kayla, 21, Addison, 6, and Alec, 5. She also sometimes brings her younger two to her office with her on the weekend, so they can get a full understanding of her work as a nurse and educator.
“I want to set an example for my children. When they see my office, they think it is cool. ‘Wow, Mommy’s a nurse,’ ” they said. “I have to explain a nurse-scientist to them, so they know I’m an educator, as well. I lead research studies, work with patients and their families, and advocate that patient needs are being met. They get a chance to see it all.”