UCSF boasts some of the best researchers in the world, but often those behind the scenes can make an equally powerful impact on the frontlines of patient care.
Debby Hamolsky, RN, MS, AOCNS retires this month after 23 years as an integral presence in the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center. She was recently honored at the annual Taste for the Cure: A Taste of Science event where her years of service and exemplary patient care were celebrated by former patients and coworkers.
Hamolsky has had a long and varied career in health care. After beginning as Clinical Nurse Specialist at Mount Zion and working in HIV at SFGH, she answered the call from Dr. Laura Esserman in 1993 who was starting a Breast Cancer Center (BCC) and needed a nurse. Hamolsky was taken by a Nietzsche poster in Esserman’s office that reads ”One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” She and Esserman have been a team ever since.
We asked Hamolsky to elaborate on her time at UCSF, the changes she saw in her years of service and her plans for the future.
Please share your insight into the growth of the Breast Care Center since the early days.
I’m extremely proud of “the house that we built.” Starting out with one surgeon, one half-time nurse, and one half-time nurse practitioner, the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Cancer Center has blossomed into a multi-disciplinary, multi-specialty practice that includes surgery, radiation, medical oncology, and more and more related professions (nursing, physical therapy genetic counseling, psycho-oncology). The research and clinical care aspects of those dimensions make a complex structure but it is patients and patient care that lie at the center of it.
Somewhere in mid 90s Laura Esserman turned to me one day and said, "You know what, I want you to see all of the new patients before they have surgery and develop some kind of orientation to the practice." I developed 90-minute pre-op visits and 60-minute introductions to chemotherapy--an anachronism in health care.
I call these my "snowflake visits" because no two have been the same. I have the honor to enter someone’s world at a really tough moment with the goal to turn it around, make it easier, and give them some tools. The surgeries may be the same, but the interactions, connections, challenges, lessons learned in those visits are never the same. Every one of those taught me something about human connection.
After working in this field for 30 years, what observations do you have about UCSF and about cancer care in general?
That the stuff in the UCSF mission statement is something people here do care about actually delivering. We are far from perfect, but we are forever invested in doing it better, smarter, learning more about how to do it better as we go. We try to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously and there's a big role that humor can play to connect us. I watch people going through horrible experiences using humor as a tool for survival. And I see people in challenging situations in the workplace doing the same thing.
If you're going to do work with people with cancer, our tools, along with great science and care, need to include hope and optimism. Optimism must fuel the work so that breast cancer can become a series of treatable diseases.