Agnes Jastrzebski, breast cancer nurse navigator for Cancer Patient Support Services, sits with a heart-shaped pillow that she gives breast cancer patients as an emotional and physical support. Jastrzebski acts as the point of contact for patients throughout their care at Morton Plant Hospital.
Agnes Jastrzebski often meets women when they are feeling most vulnerable.
As the breast cancer nurse navigator for Cancer Patient Support Services at Morton Plant Hospital, Jastrzebski’s job is to contact patients who have just been diagnosed with breast cancer and become a point of contact for their care. Her pleasant face and soft Polish voice are to be a reassurance to patients throughout their treatment: from biopsies to radiation and chemotherapy to possible surgery, breast reconstruction and final recovery.
“I am privileged to enter in one of the most private and stressful times in patients’ lives,” Jastrzebski said. “It’s during this difficult time that I lend my heart, my support, my courage, my direction and my presence, and I try to do that until the patient can find their own strength, their own courage.”
The goal is to empower patients and give them a sense of control in their care, she added. She provides consistency and timely access to treatment and resources.
“Sometimes it’s just me holding their hand and giving them a hug and just being there for them,” she said.
Some patients need someone who will listen. Some call every day, to ask about their appointments, the free resources available to them and their options for treatment. Almost everyone has tons of questions about the scary path before them.
“I tell them it’s like a roller coaster: there are easier days and harder days, but I’m there to be there every step of the way,” Jastrzebski said.
Cancer Patient Support Services, or CaPSS, works with a lot of different agencies in the community to help patients overcome barriers like paying for treatment and transportation. Jastrzebski explains the range of options and lets the patients decide what’s best for them.
She also makes herself available to accompany patients to their first appointments, especially if they have no one else who can go with them. It’s helpful to have someone help disseminate the information and options oncologists offer during that initial consultation, she explained.
A breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and heartbreaking, but Jastrzebski said that she’s only seen patients’ outlook improve as they meet with doctors, surgeons and learn more about their options.
“Then you see nothing but happy patients … that are just grateful for all the support that they receive,” she said. “I think just knowing what to expect puts them at ease and gives them courage to continue.”
Jastrzebski said it’s “very rewarding” to be part of an integral part of that process. She’s been the CaPSS point person since she was hired in February.
“So far, everybody that I’ve met, they’re so grateful,” she said.
One of her clients, a feisty woman in her late 70s, didn’t think she needed a nurse navigator and informed Jastrzebski of just that during their first call.
“Honey, I don’t need any navigation. I know where I’m going,” she said, frankly.
But she listened to what Jastrzebski had to say, and ended up accepting directions to Mortan Plant Hospital. During the first week of her care especially, the patient called her nearly every day, Jastrzebski said.
And she changed her tune.
“Agnes, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have you,” she later said.
Another patient decided to preemptively shave her head before undergoing chemotherapy asked Jastrzebski to accompany her to the hair salon.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her. She asked me if I would go with her to support her through that, and it was very rewarding for me to do that for her,” Jastrzebski said. “To this day, she’s like so grateful and always remembers”
Jastrzebski said she always wanted to work closely with patients. As the oldest of four sisters growing up in Poland, she discovered a passion for nursing at a very early age, she said. After high school, she worked as a licensed practical nurse in New Jersey before earning her degree as a registered nurse. Later, due to family considerations, she transitioned to business management, working at a Mercedes-Benz corporate location.
She decided to move back to the medical field in 2009, before moving to Florida. Her last job was a data manager in Morton Plant Mease’s Total Cancer Care Research Department, which used both her medical and business skills. Jastrzebski said it was a “very exciting, very busy job,” but her contact with patients was limited to 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
“So that’s why when this position became available, I thought it would be rewarding to make an impact and work with patients at that level,” she said. “At first I didn’t realize how much of an impact I was going to have with the patients and how close of a relationship that you develop with them.”
She said she also didn’t realize just how many breast cancer patients there were, how many faces and voices over the phone she would have to familiarize herself with.
“The workload is hard, but it’s manageable,” she said. “But if it wasn’t for the CaPSS team, I know I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own.”
She also learned, from her close interaction with patients, that “cancer is not what it used to be.”
“There’s hope for everyone. It’s just amazing what we can offer them,” she said. “It’s not as devastating as I thought it would be.”
As of yet, none of her patients’ cases have been fatal.
“I’ve been very fortunate so far,” she said. “I’m not naďve (to think) that those won’t happen, but even in those situations, knowing that someone is there for you, even if you have to face the most difficult situation in your life, I’m sure is a great support to them.”
Some cases are harder than others, when patients discover that the cancer has metastasized, she said. She gives credit to God for helping her bear the emotional burden.
“Sometimes it’s emotionally draining, but I don’t think it’s difficult,” she said. “And I try not to take it home with me.”
At home, Jastrzebski’s children both aspire to have careers in the medical field. Michael, 15, has talked about going into sports rehabilitation, and Jessica, 17, wants to be a brain surgeon.
“It’s just wonderful that they have that passion for caring for people,” she said.
It’s a passion they emulate from their mother, who cannot emphasize enough how blessed she is.
“I feel very fortunate to have this job. I’m blessed to working for this comprehensive breast care program, where all the doctors and all departments work together to provide the best care for our patients,” she said. “That’s been humbling; it’s an honor to be a part of that.”
Cancer Patient Support Services is in the Axelrod Pavilion at Mortan Plant Mease, at 400 Pinellas St. in Clearwater.
Call Jastrzebski at 298-6800 or visit MPMHealth.org and click on the Cancer link for more information.