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Cancer nurse from Plainfield lobbies for her patients

Oncology nurse from Plainfield lobbies in Washington, D.C.

PLAINFIELD – Surprise! You owe a co-pay of $200 to $700.

That unexpected news is enough for a Medicare patient to skip the colonoscopy altogether and some do, said Pamella Willett of Plainfield, an oncology nurse at the Edward Cancer Center in Naperville and mother of three children.

So when the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network contacted Willett and asked her to participate in its annual Leadership Summit and Lobby Day from Sept. 21 to Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C., Willett – once she understood the issues – willingly agreed.

Those issues revolved around cancer research, palliative care and a loophole in Medicare that required patients to pay a co-pay of at least $200 when a polyp was found, Willett said.

The loophole is a big one. When patients with private insurance undergo a routine colonoscopy and the doctor finds a polyp, it is immediately removed. The same occurs with Medicare patients – except once the procedure changes from “routine” to “diagnostic,” the co-pay is added.

Maggie Osborne, the Illinois grassroots manager for ACS CAN, said 750 people – including patients, survivors and volunteers – from across the country attended the event, with 20 coming from Illinois. The Lobby Day was Sept. 29.

Once in Washington, D.C., Willett attended large group and conference-style workshops and training sessions, where she learned in-depth information about the issues involved from oncology doctors and researchers, before meeting elected officials, Osborne said.

Advocating for patients isn’t new for Willett.

Jenna VanGilder, administrative director of cancer care at Edward Hospital, said Willett has served as captain for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life Naperville team, in addition to finding resources for cancer patients and their families.

“She’s an excellent nurse,” VanGilder said. “Her skills are really good, she’s very caring, and she’s thorough.”

Having worked in nursing homes in varied roles since high school – including serving as an administrator of one -– Willett decided she wanted more patient contact and enrolled in the nursing program at South Suburban College.

But when Willett graduated in 1996, hospitals at that time only wanted nurses with experience, so Willett found herself back in nursing homes. Around this time, Willett’s mother Virginia Stewart was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

Shortly after Edward Hospital hired Willett, Stewart died.

“The day I was supposed to start at the hospital was the first day of her services,” Willett said, “so I started two weeks later.”

Six months into the job, Willett was ready to quit. Caring for cancer patients while grieving was overwhelming. Ironically, Willett said she stayed because of her mother and because it seemed wrong to quit simply because Willett felt uncomfortable.

“Cancer patients go through uncomfortable things all the time,” Willett said, “but they don’t have that choice.”

That’s why Willett lobbied – for her mother; her mother-in-law Arlene Willett, who died from ovarian cancer; and for her patients – and why she would lobby again, if the opportunity arose, despite the 12- to 14-hour days it required.

Willett believes lobbying is one way to make a difference for her patients. She hopes elected officials will support the issues.

“I believe in the power of numbers,” Willett said, “sort of like the nagging kids asking and asking mom for something.”

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