When diagnostic imaging patients at the Banner Health Breast Center in Greeley, Colorado get a phone call from Mary Dickinson, it’s often accompanied by the news that they will need additional follow-up from a recent screening mammogram. Whether they need additional imaging, have a finding that requires further physical study, or will require subsequent treatment planning, Dickinson is the conduit for their follow-up, education and the first person with whom they may have a deeply difficult conversation about their health.
“The big themes are getting patients back for additional imaging, and then, if they have a finding that needs to be biopsied, I give them the education and get them scheduled for that biopsy,” Dickinson said. “When they come back to do the biopsy, I get them consented, do their post-care teaching; I will wait for their results to come a couple days later and help.”
If the patient receives a breast cancer diagnosis, Dickinson is there to provide information about that pathology and its impact, and to facilitate subsequent communication with physicians, from surgeons to oncologists.
“We’re always in communication with our cancer center to make sure that if they’re needing anything additional we can get them back in a timely manner,” Dickinson said.
It’s a job that is difficult to do, but which Dickinson finds “very rewarding,” mainly because of the opportunity to comfort patients who need support in a moment of emotional vulnerability.
“Immediately, what does everybody think? ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die,’ ” she said. “I love to tell patients, ‘Yes, we’re working it up because it could be something serious, but just know, a majority of the time we find out it’s nothing. We just want to guarantee that.’ ”
“When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘That must be hard,’ ” Dickinson said. “It’s not. It’s quite rewarding. It’s nice to be able to be somebody that they can trust, and lean on, and if they have questions or they’re freaking out about something, they know that they can call, and I can help walk them through that.”
Dickinson said the difficult moments are also some of the most rewarding precisely because she knows she’s helping to get the patients farther along on their treatments. Even when there’s difficult news to communicate, she enjoys having a lot of the answers her patients are looking for, and quickly connecting them with the next health care professional who can help them.
“I can get patients in for their MRI and in to see the specialists within a week timeframe, which is way faster than some areas can do,” Dickinson said. “It’s extremely nice to know that we’re ahead of the game as far as having such a great workflow and help patients get through a lot faster.”
Dickinson credits her ability to “talk for hours,” which she wields as a helpful distraction for people who are anxious about their imaging results, or about the process of the imaging study itself. Some of her favorite moments on the job come when she’s simply holding someone’s hand or rubbing their back as they prepare for an imaging study.
It’s the parts of the career that she’d most hoped to be focused on when she decided to enter the health care field as a young adult. Out of high school, Dickinson thought she’d become a pediatrician, but shelved that plan when she fell in love with working the inpatient oncology floor as a young nurse. She didn’t enjoy her time in nursing leadership, however, and after returning to floor nursing, transferred over to the breast center when her current role opened up.
“Even though I am in the breast center, I’m still the nurse that’s in the imaging center,” Dickinson said. “If they are having a hard time starting an IV or CT scan, I’ll help; if someone needs a catheter, I’ll help. For the most part, it’s a fun group to work with.”
In addition to shepherding patients through the process that helps them navigate their health concerns, Dickinson also leads fundraising efforts that help support the expense of their treatment. The breast cancer fund at Banner Health generates revenues that can be used for patients who need additional diagnostic work-ups, or for grants to help patients undergoing treatment defray those costs.
Dickinson’s work helps keep those coffers full through efforts like the Tough Enough to Wear Pink rodeo and Tough Enough to Wear Pink golf tournament; together, the two events raised almost $27,000 last year. Another big fundraiser, Coffee for a Cure, is led by a couple who own a number of coffee shop locations; one Friday in October, they donate a day’s worth of sales to patient funds at Banner Health and University of Colorado Health. This year, it accounted for approximately $35,000 coming to Banner.
In support of those initiatives, Dickinson coordinates nearly 60 volunteers who help facilitate the coffee shop charity event as guest baristas, dressing up in pink and interacting with customers. The culmination of those efforts results in meaningful material support that can calm anxieties for patients to enable them to focus on healing. Dickinson recalls a patient who was struggling with personal circumstances find relief when she heard that there was some support for her situation.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m taking care of my three grandchildren right now. I just chose to have this biopsy done, but I don’t know how I’m going to feed them for the next month because of how much it cost me,’ ” Dickinson recalled.
“Being able to help her fill out the voucher and get her exams paid for, to see her body physically relax, she was so thankful and so grateful for everything,” she said. “This is why we do the fundraisers. It makes a huge difference.”
When Dickinson needs to calm her own nerves, she and her family retreat to a cabin near Sand Creek, Colorado, unplug their electronic devices, and watch wild animals on a trail camera.
“It’s very fun up there,” she said. “My family cabin is my grandparents’, and they used to take us every weekend. That was my escape, going to the cabin and hanging out for the weekend. I didn’t have all those worries and stresses that I did at home.”
“We don’t use our phones. We use the oil lamp. Going back to the bare basics, it’s a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and everything.”