SWANTON, Ohio – A cancer diagnosis can leave patients reeling, frightened and uncertain of the future, especially when it is an aggressive form of cancer or one that doesn’t respond to traditional treatments. This is the state many patients are in when the first meet Capt. Stephanie Smiddy, the infection control and immunization officer-in-charge assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard.
As the head research nurse for the precision oncology program at the Eleanor N. Dana Cancer Center at the University of Toledo Medical Center, Smiddy is often the first person a patient will meet before beginning experimental immunotherapy treatments for rare and challenging cancers.
She is responsible for patient care, administrative and regulatory duties, but her first responsibility is ensuring the patients understand the treatments they’ll receive during the clinical research program. It’s a difficult task, Smiddy explained, because most of the patients are experiencing high levels of stress and are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the diagnoses and treatments, which is only made worse by the constant barrage of medical jargon. Her coworkers described her as a nurse with a natural talent for putting her patients at ease and breaking down complicated medical concepts into simple analogies without talking down to or confusing her patients.
“Whenever she comes into a patient’s room for the first time, she gives them hope,” said Jill Sholl, a clinical research nurse at UTMC.
“The room lights up whenever she walks in, and I needed that,” said Linda Milks-Pond, a patient receiving treatments at UTMC. “When I got here, things weren’t looking very good, but her attitude and her professionalism lifted a huge burden from me. She’s been a huge part of my recovery.”
She began her nursing career in a regular oncology program but moved to clinical research because she wanted to have a more significant impact on her patients and their care.
“When you’re in the hospital, you get just a snapshot of the patient,” Smiddy said. “They’re in the hospital for an acute problem, so they come in, you take care of them, and then you discharge them, but you don’t know what happened to them before they were admitted and you don’t know what happens to them after they’re discharged. As a clinical research coordinator, I’m more personally involved with that patient.”
Smiddy is also responsible for monitoring how patients respond to treatments and determining whether or not a patient should continue with their treatment program. One of the many ways she goes above and beyond the call of duty is by making herself available to all of her patients 24-hours-a-day.
Milks-Pond said she had been hospitalized for an unrelated medical emergency while participating in the clinical research program at UTMC. Around midnight, she had a nurse telling her she needed a blood transfusion, but the doctor treating her disagreed, saying it would conflict with the cancer treatment she was receiving at the time. Milks-Pond sent Smiddy a text asking for help, and Smiddy replied immediately letting Milks-Pond know the treatment wouldn’t conflict with her other therapies.
“It was horribly scary,” Milks-Pond said. “But I was able to get right through to her. I didn’t have to worry about what might happen, because she was always there for me.”
While she tries to make herself as available as possible to all of her patients, Smiddy said the hardest part of her job is time management.
“I want to be able to spend an hour with each patient, but that’s not always possible,” Smiddy said. “I want to enroll as many people as possible without compromising the quality of care the patient is getting and without compromising the quality of the data we’re getting.”
In addition to her role as a head research nurse, she’s also responsible for safeguarding the health and preparedness of the men and women of the 180FW. As the Immunization OIC at the 180FW, she needs to be able to explain the way vaccines work with the human immune system for Airmen who frequently deploy to remote locations where they need vaccinations for diseases most Americans will never encounter.
“What she does here for the patients, for the program, and the university is invaluable,” said Dr. John Nemunaitis, director of the oncology research program at UTMC.
Whether helping Airmen stay fit to fight or helping a patient cope with the physical and emotional hardship of battling cancer, Smiddy is committed to helping people live their best lives.
“Between all of her experiences with her military background and what she does for the patients here every day, I’m just very proud of her,” Scholl said.