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An RCC Cancer Navigator: Compassion in Action

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

Before she joined Lee Health, oncology nurse Veena Sharma worked as a senior oncology research nurse in Illinois. She recalls an experience working with a patient who had brain cancer, an older man she'd become close to. 

“I worked with cancer patients who were on a clinical trial,” Veena says. “Among my patients, this man stood out as special. We met weekly during his chemotherapy infusion for a required assessment. We became close. One day, during my regular visit to the clinic, I realized that it was his birthday. I held his hand and wished him happy birthday. I asked if he and his wife, who was with him, if he was celebrating with his family later.”

She says the man gave her a smile and said, “I am old, sick, and about to die, so no one wants to celebrate with me.”

“I saw the sadness in his face, as well as his wife’s,” Veena recalls in her memoir Tenacity. “It broke my heart.”

What Veena did next is what honors her calling as a cancer navigator at Regional Cancer Center, her gifts of compassion, empathy, and advocacy that were long in place before she joined RCC’s cancer navigator program.

She left the infusion clinic, only to return a while later with a small birthday cake she’d purchased from the hospital coffee shop.  

“We celebrated his birthday in the clinic. The look on his face was priceless,” she says. “I realized that no materialistic thing in the world could replace that moment. It is the little things in life that make a difference."

Veena Sharma, RN, MSN, CMSRN, continues to go the extra mile for her patients, ensuring they are treated with compassion, with respect, like part of a family.

Twists and Turns

Veena brought that wisdom, borne of rich experiences, to Lee Health in 2017 when she left the snowdrifts of Springfield, the capital city of Illinois, for the sandy beaches of Fort Myers, the “The City of Palms.”

“I have never felt as content about living anywhere as I do in Florida. Life is indeed what you make it,” Veena says of the personal experiences that brought her to the area.

“Sometimes, you must go through many twists and turns, ups and downs in life to reach your destination. The key is to never give up.”

For Veena, those “twists and turns” began on the island of Viti Levu, one of the two mainland islands of Fiji, an archipelago of more than 330 islands in the Pacific.

The youngest of five brothers and one sister, she shared a one-level wood home in Dawasamu, a small settlement nestled between two villages.

Designed by her grandfather and built with the help of villagers and family, the home featured a tin-peaked roof, a cast-iron wood-burning stove, and clean water piped from a nearby freshwater stream.

A mile away, across fields of flowered meadows and forests of fruit trees and plants, spinner dolphins played (and still do) in the clear waters along the island’s famed coastal beach.

It’s no wonder why Veena settled in coastal Southwest Florida. Her life now, as it did then, is graced by her love of sand beaches, palm trees, and tropical flowers.

“You might take the girl out of Fiji, but you can never take Fiji out of the girl,” she says, laughing. “My first love of tropical flowers filled my soul, and indeed they are now part of my tropical garden here—hibiscus, plumeria, jasmine, and gardenia, are my favorites.”

Admittedly, Fort Myers has one thing her native home didn’t have when she was a child: electricity.

“Everything we ate was freshly harvested and consumed right away as we did not have electricity to run a refrigerator,” Veena says. “We grew up eating organic fruits, vegetables, and meat. We had horses, chickens, and cows. My brothers were assigned to milk the cows every morning, so we had fresh milk. Our yard was full of fresh fruit, including mangoes, bananas, guavas, mandarin, breadfruit, lemons, star fruit, and cantaloupe. Life was simple and stress-free.”

Finding Balance

Veena’s journeys from the villages of Fiji have taken her to Vancouver, B.C, California, Virginia, Illinois, and now, Florida.

Along the way, she has worked as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing degree (BSN), acquired a Master of Science in nursing (MSN), completed a capstone project in pain management to become a pain management specialist, and frequently lectures as a nurse educator.

Veena says the early years of her healthcare career proved challenging as she ascended in her profession by dint of hard work and furthering her clinical education while balancing life with work, school, and home.

For years she toiled the overnight shift as an LPN while raising two children and supporting her parents, who shared her home.

Today, Veena is a proud mother of two sons, both of whom are or will work in the software industry, and two daughters, both of whom work in healthcare. There’s your balance, she says with a laugh.

As she writes in her memoir, Veena appreciates her life—its sorrows, successes, personal losses, material gains, all of it.

“Today, I am thankful to everyone in my life who had an influence, whether positive or negative, because I would not be who I am today were they not in my life,” Veena writes. “Every experience has taken me one step closer to where I want to be. Nothing comes easily in life, but anything is possible if you believe in yourself.”

Have you recently been diagnosed with cancer and aren't sure what to do next?

A cancer diagnosis can be a scary and overwhelming time. That’s why our nurse navigators are trained to help take the stress away by guiding patients through their cancer care plans. These specialists meet patients in our hospitals or outpatient centers and advise on next steps: Scans, tests, appointments, and the timeline involved for each.

They also answer questions, tackle transportation issues, and help with insurance concerns. By serving as a point person during treatment, navigators make sure that patients have more time to concentrate on healing.

To speak with a nurse navigator, please call 239-343-9500. Visit Lee Health's cancer care page for more.

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