Oncology nurse knows first-hand what her patients are experiencing

Heather Bates of Fairborn (left), an an infusion nurse for Dayton Physicians Network at Miami Valley Hospital South in Centerville, has formed a deep friendship with her patient Nancy Huff of Oakwood. They support each other through their own cancer journeys. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: WillJonesPhoto

Credit: WillJonesPhoto

“I have a deeper empathy for my patients. I know what they are feeling because I have been there.”

Oncology nursing always has been Heather Bates' calling.

“My patients are the most amazing patients,” she said.

Even after being diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer in July, the 43-year-old Fairborn mother continues to work as an infusion nurse for Dayton Physicians Network at Miami Valley Hospital South in Centerville.

“I have a deeper empathy for my patients,” Bates said. “I know what they are going through when they tell me they are tired and they are nauseated. I know what they are feeling because I have been there.”

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Some of Bates' patients are now supporting her as much as she is supporting them.

In fact, she has formed a deep friendship — a support group of two — with one of her patients, Nancy Huff of Oakwood. Huff was diagnosed in January with two types of invasive breast cancer. She found Bates' presence a great comfort when she was undergoing chemotherapy at Miami Valley Hospital South.

“It was so fantastic to have a nurse who could answer all my questions and speak from experience,” Huff said.

One morning in July, Huff noticed Bates' heartbreaking Facebook post: “As a breast cancer survivor, you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And my shoe just dropped.”

In April 2018, Bates was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of breast cancer, known as triple-negative, that was found during a routine mammogram. “I would have a lot less time here on this earth if I hadn’t had my annual mammogram,” she said.

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She endured a rigorous treatment regimen — five months of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation — before hearing the magical words from her oncologist: “There is no evidence of disease.”

Only 18 months later, she received a second devastating diagnosis: metastatic breast cancer that had spread to the bone and the liver.

“It was terrifying,” Bates recalled. “I’m an oncology nurse, so I know what it means to have metastatic breast cancer. I know that there’s no cure; there’s only treatment. My mind flew to my daughter, who needs her mom. I hope that my treatment is long-term and that I will be there for the milestones in her life, like graduating from high school.”

Before long, Bates wanted to go back to work, even while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, because she draws so much strength from her patients. “I still have my days when it’s tears all day long, but working with my patients gives me hope and helps me to focus on something else.”

Mark Romer, MD, medical oncologist — Bates' oncologist as well as her colleague — said her ability to keep working “shows that we have come so far in cancer treatment that you can take chemotherapy and not be miserable all the time.”

Mark Romer, MD, medical oncologist

He is inspired by Bates' compassion and determination. “Heather is a shining example of how you confront adversity,” said Dr. Romer, a certified physician with MD Anderson Cancer Network, a program of MD Anderson Cancer Center, at Premier Health.

As Bates' patient and friend, Huff said she feels a powerful desire to “walk alongside Heather just as she walked beside me.” Every Tuesday morning, Huff wakes up at 6 a.m., kisses her four children goodbye, and picks up a fruit tart or Killer Brownie at Dorothy Lane Market to deliver before Bates undergoes chemotherapy.

“Nancy and I are more than patient and nurse; we are friends,” Bates said. “How many people would come every Tuesday at eight in the morning to encourage you and bring you a treat?”

Huff agreed. “I have been blessed by Heather. It’s so great to have someone who gets you, like when you talk about chemo brain.”

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Such support is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, when patients feel especially vulnerable — emotionally as well as medically. All Premier Health facilities, including Miami Valley Hospital South, are adhering to extensive safety measures, including strict cleaning and sanitation practices, careful monitoring of the health of providers and staff, and COVID-19 screening for hospitalized patients. “They have done a great job every time I have gone in for an appointment,” Huff said.

These days, when she isn’t at her patients' side, Bates savors every moment with her family — her husband, David, and her 15-year-old daughter, Blaire. “You realize you will never get that time back,” she said. “You realize what’s important and what’s not.”

Whenever she feels disheartened, Bates remembers the advice she often gives her patients: “There are hard days, but you are going to get through that hard day, and tomorrow is going to be better.”

To schedule a screening mammogram, call (855) 887-7364 Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., or Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Women without insurance coverage may be eligible for a free mammogram or other women’s health services. Call (866) 838-8973 to see if you qualify.

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