University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Spotlight: Deborah Hamolsky, Nurse Coordinator, Breast Care Center

Deborah Hamolsky

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.

Beth Crawford, Debby Hamolsky, Cindy Perlis

Beth Crawford, Genetic Counselor:

“Debby became my mentor twenty years ago when I came to the breast care center. She held my hand and shared the importance of learning about each individual patient’s story, beliefs and values, weaving the sometimes frightening, sometimes hopeful and often very complex information into the fabric of the individual patient. She would be in the wings queuing the rest of the members of the team, surgeons, oncologists, genetic counselors nurses, social workers, telling us 'now is moment when we can add value.' She would alert the team to the individual needs of each patient -- one woman needing guidance on talking to her children about the diagnosis, another with a history of hereditary cancer concerned about how gene testing might help her and her sister. Whatever the story, Debby has been there to translate the feelings and accompany each person on their trek.”

Cindy Perlis, Director, Art for Recovery:

“In 1988 at the HIV unit at Mount Zion, I was a deer in the headlights. Debby took me by the hand, literally, and showed me the way. I observed her with the patients. She looked them in the eye as though no one else was in the room, holding their hands, acknowledging their pain, their anger, and their fear. In 1988 there was no cure for AIDS – yet they felt held and heard and seen by her. Debby gave them hope for whatever time was left.“

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.

Laura Esserman, Director, Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center:

"Debby is the first person I hired when I arrived at UCSF. She had wisdom, heart , and passion for putting patients first. She has been the Rock of the program. We will miss her dearly but she has been instrumental in creating a culture and infused the center and everyone who works here with shared values of compassion, patient centeredness, dedication, fierce devotion to high touch high quality of care and the importance of remembering to focus on every person's whole story.

On behalf of the thousands of lives she has touched, we thank her and are grateful for all she has given to all of us."


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