LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In 2012, her father and grandfather were diagnosed with lung cancer within a month of each other. As the manager of the medical oncology and infusion center at the University of Louisville James Graham Brown Cancer Center, Heather Hibbard, B.S.N., R.N., was familiar with the medical care they would receive, but experiencing their illnesses as a family member gave her a deeper understanding of the needs of cancer patients and their families.
“I witnessed what cancer did to our families. I went home with them to help them with the aftermath of their treatment. I held their hands at the end, and I let them go,” Hibbard said.
Her father and grandfather passed away one month apart in 2013. Although it was a painful time for her, Hibbard began to draw on her personal experience to improve care provided at the UofL Brown Cancer Center.
“I did not know if I was going to be able to walk back in this office at all. But believe it or not, it actually made me stronger,” Hibbard said. “I started saying, ‘What can I do to be a better nurse?’”
As a nurse manager, Hibbard is in a position to make things easier for many of the patients at the Brown Cancer Center. For example, to improve appointment turnaround times, she created a lab and line room where patients can have their vitals and lab work done before seeing the physician. This reduced patient wait times from 60 minutes to 20 minutes.
“She has streamlined a lot of our processes,” said Beth Small, R.N., a nurse clinician at Brown Cancer Center. “She lets us do our job as opposed to micromanaging us. Every doctor, every nurse and every patient is different. She gives us the autonomy to address issues and take care of our patients and our physicians the way we need to.”
She also takes the extra steps to help when patients are having more than their share of difficulty.
“She knows that not everyone has fairy tale life. When we have patients in need, she has organized and pulled us together to make sure they have Christmas or whatever they need. Someone might need shoes, someone might need clothes. We have patients who have that much need,” said Small, who was a charge nurse at the cancer center and interviewed Hibbard when she was hired.
She believes she can help improve care for patients by improving life for the nurses and staff.
“Take care of them, and they take care of the patients,” Hibbard said. To help the nurses increase their knowledge, Hibbard began inviting monthly educational speakers.
Hibbard is familiar with intentional development. She began her career as a certified nurse’s aide. The nurses she worked with told her she would make a great nurse, but she was apprehensive about nursing education.
However, after her children were born, she made the decision to push herself. She joined the Brown Cancer Center as a medical assistant and started college while all three of her children were still in diapers. First, she obtained an L.P.N. degree, then an R.N., and in 2016, she received her B.S.N.
Now she mentors other nurses to help them achieve their goals.
“Heather exhibits the role of the servant leader. She grew up as a professional in the Cancer Center, and she now leads by example and works with people where they are as individuals – not just as employees. We have several staff members who have grown under Heather’s leadership and several who are in school,” said Kimberlee Hanna, M.B.A., B.S.N., R.N., O.C.N., interim director for medical oncology and infusion at the Brown Cancer Center and Hibbard’s supervisor.
Hanna said Hibbard is constantly working on ways to improve processes within the cancer center, which recently transitioned from management by KentuckyOne Health to University Medical Center.
“She takes problems and looks for different ways to approach them. This leader always keeps the patient at center of focus,” Hanna said.
“Heather is a very talented individual. She has a passion for oncology, a drive to make things better and she doesn’t accept the status quo. Every day she comes in to work and gives her all. As a leader, she is very positive and very focused on the direction the cancer center is going,” Hanna said. “I’m always encouraged by her level of drive, courage and creativity.”
Hibbard says she wants to provide the kind of care for patients and families that she would want to receive.
“Every patient is so important. I see a glimpse of my father in each one of them. The daughter who is with them, or sister or mother, I see them as me,” Hibbard said. “I’ve been out to make things different so they don’t have to go through the things I went through with my father and my grandfather.”
It isn’t always big things that make a difference, however.
“You don’t ever hear, ‘thank you for accessing my port,’” Hibbard said. “But you do hear ‘thank you for being gentle with me,’ ‘thank you for listening,’ ‘thank you for calling home health and getting things set up so my life is a little easier.’”
In recognition of her exemplary care for patients, Hibbard received the Daisy Award for Exceptional Nurses in April.
“I’ve been a nurse for 36 years and probably the biggest compliment I can give her is I’d let her take care of me any day,” Small said. “She is a wonderful nurse.”