Staying the Course: How nurse navigators help patients on their journey through treatment

When Williadene Brown was diagnosed with cancer, she had plenty of questions. She just couldn’t think of the words to ask them.

“It was like a numbness,” she recalls. “I couldn’t talk to my family. I could barely talk to my pastor. I just couldn’t talk. I remember sitting on the side of my bed, thinking, ‘OK, God, what do I do now?’”

Brown, 61, discovered she had cancer in October 2021 following a routine mammogram, which led to an ultrasound, then a biopsy. “It came back that it was breast cancer. Stage IIB. And it was aggressive,” she says.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Brown’s brother had died from cancer the month before, and her daughter was diagnosed with a different form of cancer around the same time. “With all that going on, I couldn’t function. I couldn’t think,” Brown says. “It was too much.”

That was when she got a call from Shernette Sherrill, an oncology nurse navigator at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital. “She told me all about what to expect, what I’d be going through and how she could help me,” Brown says. “She’s been with me the whole way, advocating for me and supporting me. I could hardly talk at the time, but Shernette was there to talk for me.”

Nurse navigators are registered nurses who help patients access the care and resources they need throughout treatment. While they often work with cancer patients, as Sherrill does, they are becoming more prevalent in other specialties as well.

“It’s a way to make sure no patients fall through the cracks,” Sherrill explains. “This way, they have one person who can answer their questions and make sense of this whole confusing process. And if there are scheduling problems or other barriers to treatment, I can help with that, too.”

The biggest barriers Sherrill typically sees are financial. “I get quite a few patients who don’t have insurance, so I’ll help find a way for them to receive affordable care,” she says. “Transportation is another need — just getting to and from appointments can be a huge hurdle for patients. Another big part of my job is providing education regarding the patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan. As a nurse navigator, you want to make sure they understand what the doctors are telling them and what treatment options they have.”

But perhaps the most essential part of her job is offering compassion, encouragement and support. “I don’t want any patient to be alone when they’re going through treatments,” Sherrill says. “It’s hard because I’ve encountered patients who don’t have a support system, and a lot of them don’t know if they’re going to get through it. I tell them, I’m here for you. Treating each patient like a family member and giving them that encouragement is so important. The reward is seeing that patient ringing the bell when they’re done with their treatment, and seeing the joy in their face. It’s like: Gosh, I made it.”

For Brown, that support was vital. “I didn’t want to burden my family, who were already dealing with so much. Shernette promised she would be there for me — she would walk with me through this journey,” Brown says. “And she was. She was there to tell me exactly, step by step, what was going on and what I needed to do. I had many questions, many doubts. She assured me everything would be OK. There were times I didn’t understand some of the paperwork — I didn’t understand the verbiage. She would answer my calls anytime, day or evening. Up to this day, she’s been there. It’s amazing.”

Brown’s journey through cancer treatment was not an easy one. She endured 25 rounds of chemotherapy before undergoing a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. A week and a half after her surgery, her husband fell ill and had to be taken to the ER by ambulance. “I called Shernette and said, ‘Greg is at the hospital.’ The first thing she said was, ‘What can I do?’” Brown says. “Every day he was in the hospital, she called several times a day. I thought that was very special. It doesn’t feel like she’s just doing her job; you feel like you’re the only one she’s paying attention to. She’s not rushing — she’s spending as much time as you need. Even though I’m sure she has many other patients as well.”

Sherrill actively manages between 10 and 15 patients a day. In her two years at Memorial Hermann, she’s already worked with roughly 1,000 people. She’s still in touch with many of them — and with their families. “We’re not just here for the patient; we’re here for the family members as well,” she says. “We want to make sure the family members are following up with their own health appointments. To take care of their loved one, they also have to take care of themselves.”

Brown’s husband is doing better now, and in March, Brown completed her final radiation session, marking the end of 30 rounds of post-surgery radiation treatment. Sherrill was there with her when she rang the bell. But a follow-up scan revealed something unusual in Brown’s neck — and now she’s awaiting more testing to determine whether that, too, could be cancer. The possibility of having to start treatment again is daunting, but she is grateful to have Sherrill in her corner.

“I didn’t really want to call and follow up after that, but Shernette did it for me. No matter how busy she is, she’s right there on it,” Brown says. “I was like, ‘Oh no, not another needle. Not another test.’ But Shernette said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ She’s still helping me. She and the entire Memorial Hermann staff have been so loving and kind and prayerful. It’s very comforting.” 

Sherrill is happy to help. “Oncology nurse navigation is the most humbling, meaningful and rewarding specialty to work in,” she says. “I love giving back to patients and being there for them. I always have a smile on my face, even with my mask on. It brings me joy to bring them joy.”

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Ali Vise