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Day in Life

November 22, 2017 | Paul Govern

Photo by Anne Rayner

For many patients of the Vanderbilt Breast Center, their first direct contact with the clinic is a pre-appointment telephone call from Norma Campbell, R.N., one of the center’s two nurse coordinators. 

“Sometimes these patients are just really, really afraid, or they just want to put a face to a name, and during this call they’ll ask me, or I’ll ask them, if they mind if I come out to welcome them to the clinic,” Campbell said.  

“And I’ll just hold their hand and give them a hug, and just reassure them that they’re in really good hands, and remind them of my direct line and that they can call any time if they have any questions or concerns . . . There are some patients, I can remember one patient in particular, that every time they came, they wanted to see me, just to have a hug, just to say hello.” 

Many patients keep her phone number throughout their course of care.  

Pre-appointment phone calls from nurse coordinators are routine for new patients with a diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as for those scheduled for a biopsy. 

“We describe what their day is going to be like and who they’ll be seeing,” she said. “I always tell them that their doctor is a wonderful physician. Patients like somebody to say your doctor’s not only a wonderful person, but also a wonderful physician. I say sometimes they’re as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and will take good care of you. 

“I really try to give them an upbeat perspective of our clinic, of how we’re a comprehensive breast clinic—radiology is here, surgical oncology is here, medical oncology is here, plastic surgeons are here, nurse practitioners are here, everybody’s here—all under a big umbrella. And the patients generally appreciate hearing that.” 

For patients with a diagnosis of cancer, Campbell reviews medical records gathered from other medical practices and hospitals, determines what sorts of initial patient assessments are apt to be needed, and ensures these are scheduled. She tees up these new patient visits for the clinical team. “I make sure all the information we need is here for clinicians to review: breast imaging, biopsy slides, office notes, family history; and I do an SBAR—Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation, basically a synopsis of everything I’ve seen in the charts, like CliffsNotes.”  

For newly diagnosed patients this summary may be only a few sentences, but for longtime cancer patients who are new to the Breast Center, it will be considerably longer, involving a review of hundreds of pages of medical records.  

Called to oncology nursing 

Campbell’s husband is a mechanical engineer with a construction company. She entered nursing school at age 34, when their five children were ages 4 to 13. Before going back to school, as a young mother, Campbell had volunteered through her church to help people who were confined to their homes by sickness.  

“We needed me to go back to work. Prior to going to nursing school, I was a stay-at-home mom, but my kids went to Mother’s Day Out, and I wanted to use that time to do something in the community,” she said. “There was a nun who kind of took me under her wing, and we’d go visit the sick.” 

Campbell became the first student nurse to do an internship in oncology care at Vanderbilt. 

“I really didn’t want to be an oncology nurse, but when I got to the clinic I knew that it was a calling. And I never left—I’ve been in oncology since that day. I just kind of felt like it was something I was supposed to do; I just loved the patients, I loved their stories, I loved their families, I loved helping them even in their dying day . . . I’m so glad I had this calling when I was in my 30s instead of when I was 19, because I’m not sure if it would have meant as much as it does.” 

In 1993, as a new nursing graduate, Campbell began working nights as a staff nurse on the oncology unit at Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital. Later came roles as a nurse in Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Clinic, and as a cancer research nurse. She joined the Breast Center as a nurse coordinator in 2010. 

A new role as nurse navigator 

Campbell’s role is about to change yet again. She and the center’s other nurse coordinator, Tracy White, R.N., are becoming nurse navigators. In addition to her current duties, Campbell will meet with breast cancer patients during their first or second visit to the clinic. She will help them navigate the complexities of cancer treatment before handing them off to a clinic nurse as treatment begins. 

“Throughout their care, patients will have somebody to reach out to when they have questions or concerns,” Campbell said. “These patients have a surgical oncologist, a medical oncologist, a plastic surgeon, and something might come up that leaves them unsure of who they should be seen by. Even though we’re going to hand them off to a medical or surgical oncology nurse, we’re still here to navigate them if they’re unsure.” 

Campbell expects in many cases to accompany patients during the initial visit to the clinic, as was the case when she recently worked with her first patient as a navigator. “This lady was newly diagnosed, and she was very scared,” Campbell said. “She stopped at one point and said to the medical oncologist, ‘Can you write down everything that you’re saying.’ And I said, ‘I’m already doing that for you.’” 

Campbell looks forward to this expanded role. “I think it’s going to be much more intense, but I think it’s going to be great.” 

In her current role, she already feels close to patients. “I’ve never had cancer, but I’ve taken care of many people who’ve had cancer, and I understand the fears, the anxiety that they’re going through,” she said. “I think that they just like having that warm heart, that warm hand there.” 

Campbell was born in Rockwood, Tennessee, and has lived in Nashville since 1963. Her mother, Sarah Francis Floyd, worked in the Admitting Office at Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital for 30 years, retiring in 1994. “This was back in the days when doctors would come down to admit their own patients, so she was real familiar with all the attending physicians.” 

Employees with 25 years at Vanderbilt University or Vanderbilt University Medical Center receive a captain’s chair or rocking chair, and having recently inherited her mother’s 25-year captain’s chair, Campbell is looking forward to receiving her own chair later this year. 

Her chief hobby is cooking. “I like to try lots of things. I’m a good Southern cook; I make homemade biscuits and fried chicken, but I make excellent spaghetti and meatballs from my Italian uncle’s recipe; I make chili—I just love to cook, period. I would love one of these days to open a bed and breakfast or something that would go along with some sort of cooking.”  



  1. Congrats on all your accomplishments. I too became a nurse later in life graduating in 2005 at age 48. My son went to school with your sweet daughter Laura.

    Comment by Anna Wright — December 17, 2017 @ 10:32 am

  2. I love you Norma, you’re awesome, but I’ve known that for years.

    Comment by timothy thompson — December 19, 2017 @ 9:46 am

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