An oncology nurse for 36 years, Vicki Dodson does far more than just listen to a cancer patient’s story. Her decades of knowledge help patients chart a treatment plan forward.
Today’s various treatments are more individualized, often complex, so it can help to talk through the best options with someone who understands. Sometimes, that’s just what patients need most, to share concerns in a scary time, said Dodson, 60, a Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center oncology nurse navigator.
In September, she received national recognition from a magazine called CURE, an acronym for Cancer Updates, Research and Education. Dodson was named a runner-up in the publication’s 2020 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing. It’s been Dodson’s only field at Sacred Heart since 1984.
“I have been an oncology nurse that entire time, and I was lucky enough to have my passion for nursing achieved just by my first job,” Dodson said. “It’s definitely a position that you want to be in, not just be in for a job.”
Dodson agrees it’s a tough job, though, and she spent more than 30 years of her career doing acute-care bedside nursing with a specialty in leukemia and lymphoma patients. She’s held the navigator role just over five years.
Yet, Dodson calls it a lifelong passion to work with cancer patients and talented colleagues, describing “lots of love,” plus being part of a field that’s always changing.
“My hope is that I will ultimately get put out of business when they figure out a cure, and then I’ll become a coffee barista and drink a lot of my profits. It’s going to come. I just know it will be here.”
Dodson grew up in Seattle near SeaTac. Excelling in math and chemistry, she considered chemical engineering, but then had a dream that she was stuck on an oil rig the rest of her life. “I like people too much,” she said.
Tutoring student nurses on math and science, she thought that sounded interesting. So Dodson applied to Washington State University’s nursing program in Spokane under the consortium known as Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education.
During that time, she met her husband, Nathan Dodson. They have a son, Tristan, 32, a new Gonzaga University graduate with a master’s in music teaching. He’s also an Eagle Scout, and Dodson laughs about her unofficial title “Eagle mom from hell,” as an ongoing volunteer to help troop members stay on track for Eagle rank requirements.
A strength for organizing helps at work, too, where she said the nurse navigator role grew from a need to offer patients guidance for cancer treatments.
“There are so many necessary treatments and steps in planning,” Dodson said. “There are different types of treatments, and depending upon the diagnosis, that will depend on what type of treatment and where.
“My job as a navigator is more with education, talking to patients, being able to tell them what’s happening in a language they can understand. And being able to get them to where they need to be for these treatments and helping guide them through the system.”
With more individualized care, the benefit is it’s directed more specifically to a pathology and to a person’s diagnosis, she said. Sometimes, patients get worried that it seems like there’s a delay in their treatment when really experts seek to ensure a treatment is as specific as possible, she added.
“I get to use a lot of my experience and knowledge from the 30 years,” Dodson said. “It’s important being able to help because it can be just terrifying going through some of this stuff, so I’m someone on their side to get those little things into place so they’re not worried about it.”
She appreciates having the time to listen to patients.
“Sometimes that’s just what they want to do is to tell you what’s happened and what’s important to them. Being a bedside nurse, it can be very difficult to be able to have that time with patients because it’s a very high-flow position up on the floor. You’re constantly busy.”
It allows patients to tell her perhaps about other issues, too, besides the cancer diagnosis. And Dodson is known for helping with some of those extra concerns such as child care issues, rides to medical appointments and being a support person if families are from outside Spokane.
Recently, she helped organize a waiting-room wedding after she’d talked to a cancer patient who decided on the spot during a conversation that he wanted to marry his longtime partner.
“He’d mentioned that his significant other would be the one talking for him, and I had to let him know we needed to have paperwork regarding that, or we’d have to defer to the state laws. So he informed me that, well then, he was going to marry her, which was hysterical because I think she dropped out of her chair.
“So we planned a wedding for him, got a cake, decorated our waiting room. Everybody wore masks except the bride and groom. I played bouncer at the door to make sure everybody wore masks and washed their hands. We were able to set up things and get people going in a space of about three days. I’ve been at three weddings now.”
She works mostly with Sacred Heart patients in for outpatient or inpatient treatments. However, Dodson also gets phone calls from people in the community just asking questions.
Spokane offers many of the latest cancer treatments, she said, less often requiring trips to Seattle.
“We have a very vibrant cancer service in this area between the clinics we work with and here at the hospital,” Dodson said. “We have top-notch surgeons, excellent radiation services and medical oncologists.”
She and others in regional cancer care have regular morning discussions on the latest advances in care, opening up talk on whether one patient’s plan is the best option.
“I work with Cancer Care Northwest and Summit (Cancer Centers), and I work occasionally with Rockwood MultiCare. Most of my patients are coming through Providence. I kind of think of myself as a hub of a wheel sometimes. I do a lot of networking to make sure they’re not falling through the cracks. I get outside help, too.”
What is her strategy when first meeting a newly diagnosed cancer patient?
“I tell them that I’m here for them. I’m here to answer their questions. I’m here to be a safe place to talk about what’s going on and to help them navigate through this whole system. Sometimes, that’s just what they’re looking for because they don’t know where to go from here.”
The award nomination came from a colleague she’s known for 33 years at Sacred Heart who described how much Dodson puts people first, including when she and Boy Scout members cleaned up the yard of a cancer patient after the region’s 2015 windstorm.
Dodson doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, citing her love for co-workers, patients and that “it’s fun.”
“It’s kind of weird to say that, but it makes life an absolute pleasure. I meet the neatest people.”
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