Oncology Nurse Has a Focus on Patient Education

Photo by David Christopher
Tara Gehring, RN, BSN, OCN, CBCN

By Barbara Kirchheimer

Tara Gehring, RN, BSN, OCN, CBCN, knows the impact a caring nurse can have on a patient’s experience. Having spent a significant amount of time in physicians’ offices as a child with anaphylactic food allergies, she came to appreciate the attentiveness nurses showed her when she was feeling her worst.

Today, Gehring is a physician resource nurse in the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Section of Hematology/Oncology and specializes in caring for breast cancer patients. While she cannot pin down exactly when she decided to become a nurse, she said the roots of her decision probably trace back to her own childhood medical experiences.

During her freshman year in college, she narrowed her career choice down to teacher or nurse. “I’m so glad I chose nursing because now I’m doing both,” she said. “I love teaching patients.”

Patient education is a large part of Gehring’s job. She enjoys translating complicated medical jargon into plain language patients can understand. As an oncology nurse, she finds building relationships with her patients particularly rewarding.

“Oncology patients, especially if they’re in the hospital, are acutely sick, and they’re unfortunately there for a long time,” she said. “If you’re spending 40 hours with one patient and their family, you get to know them pretty well.”

Whether it is face-to-face or over the telephone, nurses must hone their “active listening” skills, Gehring said. “You can’t be multitasking and actually listening to a patient,” she explained. “You can’t be reading and responding to your e-mail and actively listening.”

Nurses like Gehring also are essential decision-makers when it comes to treatment plans. If a physician is deciding on an appropriate dose of medication, Gehring has been in a position to recognize that the patient’s weight may have been affected by fluid retention. She also is often able to suggest additional antiemetics to patients suffering from the nausea that can accompany chemotherapy. Other times she recommends supportive treatments after reviewing a patient’s blood work. 

“We help in decision making; we definitely work as a team,” she said. “The physicians aren’t just telling us what to do.”

Gehring also has found herself on the phone with the electric company, explaining why a cancer patient’s electricity shouldn’t be shut off. She has reasoned with insurance companies to get a medically necessary scan or medication covered, or with pharmacies trying to track down copay assistance for a patient who cannot afford a needed medication. If her patient is summoned to jury duty, she writes letters to the courts excusing patients who are actively undergoing treatment. Gehring regularly assists patients with their FMLA and disability paperwork. She gathers all relevant clinical information and does whatever is necessary to get her patients the services they deserve.

“In the back of my mind, I’m always advocating for the patient,” she said. “That’s with each phone call that I initiate, whether it’s to a pharmacy or an electric company or to a disability office.”

In spite of the frustration that can accompany such tasks, she feels cutting through red tape on behalf of her patients to get them the services they need and deserve is all part of her job.

“That’s what I love,” she said. “I love accomplishing.”