You can come 'home' again and again and again …
Ask Colleen McKinnon her history with the Hutchinson Center and she laughs warmly before letting you know that although she started working here in 1977, she has since left and returned at least five times. Opportunities for adventure and family circumstances dictated her coming and going during the past 29 years, but the fact she always came back says something about this special place.
A registered nurse, McKinnon is the voice on the phone, in addition to fellow LTFU nurse Judy Campbell, when patients and caregivers call with questions, such as how to manage graft-vs.-host disease or treatment decisions in case of relapse. She also does one-on-one discharge classes for transplant patients who cannot attend the group classes due to medical reasons or because of language barriers; McKinnon speaks Spanish and French.
Her half-time position doesn't give her as much face-to-face time with patients as she used to have. "I so believe in this job. It is the right thing to do, to follow patients and help them with their transplant-related difficulties for as long as they need us," McKinnon said.
Campbell originally hired McKinnon in 1977. In 1978, she took a leave of absence to work in a transplant unit at the Hopital Saint Louis in Paris. She returned to the Center seven months later, spent a year here, and then returned to France to help a physician establish a transplant program. Between 1980 and 2001, she came and went from the Center as circumstances dictated: meeting her future husband, a medical resident; moving to Idaho; and taking leaves to have a child and adopt two more. Her husband, Dr. David Dugdale, is associate medical director for ambulatory care at the University of Washington Medical Center.
McKinnon first heard of the Center while working at Valley General Hospital in Renton as a recent nursing-school graduate. "Someone I had graduated with was working here, and she came to my work and told me, 'This is the place for you.' So I came up and applied," McKinnon said. "I had no oncology background at all, but you could wear jeans to work, which seemed like a good idea. I loved it immediately."
It was a time when the Center was young and the work was pioneering. There were 20 beds for patients who came from around the world for a transplant because regular cancer therapy had failed. "Transplantation was not a first-line therapy like it is now," she said. "It was like space-age medicine. I could hardly even speak to anyone about what I was doing for a living, because it was so outside the realm of what you would see in a normal hospital."
McKinnon loved the relationships she had with the patients and their families. "I always felt I was part of something bigger than myself. I was part of a research team, even though I was just doing daily nursing care. You never really get that feeling in a regular hospital, that you're part of something bigger than yourself. I love that feeling, and I love being part of a team with the physicians and researchers."
McKinnon most recently was hired as a nurse in the outpatient transplant clinic at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. "Within a week of my hire, they identified me as someone who might want to work in the LTFU," she said. "Judy Campbell didn't have a nurse to relieve her at all, so they trained me. I loved it so much that they created a half-time position for me."
Campbell said McKinnon "has a real depth of knowledge of transplant issues and what the transplant means to patients. During the past few years, she has added information about the late effects of a transplant to her knowledge base, making her a real asset to our department."
McKinnon said her current job is the most rewarding she's ever had, because the LTFU program offers the Center's transplant patients a place to turn to after they've left Seattle. "We owe it to them," she said.