If I have any major problems, I’m making the hour drive and going to Bronson.

Debbie Bach, Patient

Debbie Bach lives in the St. Joseph/Benton Harbor area but comes to Bronson Methodist Hospital in downtown Kalamazoo for serious health issues. She’s always been very happy with the positive, friendly care she’s received, including some minor outpatient surgeries performed by Dr. Tempest Allen, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor at Bronson OB/GYN Associates.

“If I have any major problems, I’m making the hour drive and going to Bronson,” Debbie says.

When Debbie, 54, felt a lump in her breast in March 2010, she immediately made an appointment at Bronson OB/GYN Associates. She always stayed on top of her annual appointments and mammograms, especially since her mother and grandmother both had breast cancer. After a mammogram didn’t detect anything, an ultrasound was scheduled that showed a shadow and a biopsy was immediately performed. The next step was a MRI. The MRI showed what the other tests could not: an extremely large mass in one breast and a smaller mass in the other breast. When Debbie received the news that it was cancer, she was shocked. She thought she had done everything she could to prevent what she had watched her mother and grandmother go through.

There was someone who made the news a little easier for Debbie to handle. From Debbie’s very first appointment, Bronson Center for Women patient navigator Jill Elyea, RN, was right by her side. The patient navigator is a free service offered to all Bronson breast cancer patients. Three patient navigators are available to help women understand their diagnosis and treatment options, make appointments, provide education and support for families, and much more.

“Cancer isn’t like a sore throat that will go away in a week. You need to make life-changing decisions so quickly and you’re still trying to get your mind around the fact that you have cancer,” Debbie says. “It’s so nice to have one thing that’s familiar when everything is so out of your control. Jill has been a single voice that I can trust and she has traveled through this whole experience with me.”

Jill was right there with Debbie through two surgeries, including a radical double mastectomy to remove both breasts. Debbie says Jill was not only at her bedside in the hospital, but also made all of her appointments for her and called to check up on her during her recovery from surgery. Jill even helped Debbie find an oncologist, directed her to support groups and gave her important educational information.

“Jill is super. She has been so helpful I can’t even put it into words. She’s a friendly face in a chaotic situation.”

After her diagnosis, Debbie contacted her two sisters and encouraged them to get tested. Her 49-year-old sister found out she also has breast cancer, but the hospital she goes to out of state does not have a patient navigator program.

“She’s had to go on the Internet to find doctors and at every appointment she sees a different person who doesn’t know her background,” Debbie says. “I feel so blessed that Bronson has this program. It’s been a lifesaver, and not just for me.”

Debbie says her husband knows he can also call Jill whenever he has a question or needs advice. Jill even offered tips and support to help the couple tell their children and grandchildren about Debbie’s cancer.

“The patient navigator program is truly support for the whole family.”

Debbie is still in the midst of chemotherapy. She looks forward to wrapping up her treatments and getting back to normal, and back to doing what she loves, like spending time with her family and volunteering with dogs at the Humane Society. She wants other women with a family history of breast cancer to request a MRI, not just a mammogram. And for those women in the area who do have breast cancer, Debbie wants them to know that the patient navigator program is available at Bronson.

“It’s wonderful. You form such a bond. They’re there for you, always reassuring you. It really is a true friendship.”