More than Medicine: Cancer fighter uses variety of resources to build community at St. Mary’s

Debra Hesse, left, shows a cancer caregiver one of the free wigs available at St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center in the Advanced Medicine Pavilion, 750 Wellington Ave. Hesse is the center’s cancer services resource manager and a cancer survivor herself. “I have a very clear picture that my work is to meet the non-medical needs of our patients. So what can I do to make their journey easier?” Hesse says.

Debra Hesse’s office is in the library of St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center. She oversees a staff of about 40 volunteers and sees about 20 cancer patients and survivors each day.

Joe Scheer first became familiar with the cancer services at St. Mary’s Medical Center when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. He served as her primary caretaker until she died in 2013, but he was so impressed that he stayed on to volunteer.

Throughout all this time, Scheer marveled at the help provided to his wife, Leigh, him, and hundreds of other patients by Debra Hesse, St. Mary’s cancer services resource manager.

Even when he found out he had bladder cancer, he still made time to volunteer because of the efforts of Hesse.

“She’s a fabulous person. She took me step by step through it. I knew nothing about it. She brought me where I’m at,” said Scheer, 82, who is in remission from bladder cancer. “I owe an awful lot to Debra. I think everybody up there loves her.”

Hesse has been in her role as the cancer services resource manager since 2006 when the hospital received a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to start a survivorship program. Prior to that, Hesse had been serving as a volunteer after she had lived through a bout with skin cancer, an affliction that has resurfaced twice more, each requiring surgery.

Hesse was serving lunch to patients who were undergoing chemotherapy or radiation sessions at the hospital and had been determined to give back to those going through cancer when the opportunity for a full-time position opened.

“That lemon of a diagnosis changed my life,” Hesse said. “For me it was a wake-up call and a chance to look at my life and see if there were things that I can change.”

Now, Hesse oversees a staff of about 40 volunteers and sees about 20 cancer patients and survivors each day. Some come in looking for services such as massage, acupuncture or healing touch. Others need someone to talk to about their experiences. And some just want to say hello to someone who helped them.

Patients are referred to Hesse by oncologists and nurse navigators. Volunteers perform jobs ranging from serving lunch to cleaning off chairs used for chemotherapy.

Hesse has worked for the past decade to make life as easy as possible for patients and doctors who need to focus on treatments.

One of her missions is to preach prevention. She spends time in parks passing out sunscreen to children during events and makes regular television appearances giving tips on how to lower the risks of cancer through diet.

“I have a very clear picture that my work is to meet the non-medical needs of our patients. So what can I do to make their journey easier?” she said. “I think it makes it easier to be a doctor or nurse here and know that when a patient needs something besides medicine, we have that.”

Of the 40 or so volunteers, most, if not all, have been affected by cancer and many of them are cancer survivors themselves.

St. Mary’s Oncology Director Dean Putt said he finds impressive the community of volunteers and cancer survivors Hesse has created.

“There’s something about her, she knows the pulse of the community and knows what people need. She acts on it before people even know,” Putt said. “I think over the long term, you can see a lot of patients become volunteers. … That’s one indication that it was important to them.”

Putt has been with St. Mary’s for about a year, coming from Yuma, Arizona, where he said his former hospital didn’t have one person to do Hesse’s job. He’s seeing how valuable it is and how much the patients need this type of care in addition to the medical treatments.

“It’s very important,” he said. “I’ve been in the field long enough to have seen the world before a lot of this support. Physicians focus more on treatment, but they say about two-thirds of what they deal with is not related to treatment.”

Todd Hildebrandt, a fellow cancer survivor who leads a group called Live by Living that encourages cancer patients to remain active and get outdoors, also noted Hesse’s influence on creating a community of cancer survivors. She often refers patients to his group.

“Deb’s just a great resource for people who have cancer so you can find resources the hospital has,” he said. “She does a great job of creating a community. Without Deb, I don’t think there would be a community of cancer survivors.”

Hesse has many sad stories and has attended a lot of funerals, but she said she is constantly reminded of why she does what she does when she interacts with people.

“It’s a blessing to come alongside people as they walk along the valley of the shadow of death,” she said. “I tell people they’re just passing through the valley. Let’s get to the other side.”


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