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Published on March 30, 2021

Cone Health nurse navigator Shawn Perkins turns to Cone Health Philanthropy and its many funds to help patients in crisis.

Shawn Perkins meets with patient and nurse

Navigating the needs of the whole patient

People tend to confide in Shawn Perkins.

A nurse navigator, Perkins is coordinator of the lung cancer screening program at Cone Health Alamance Regional Medical Center. Most of the time, patients get the screening, receive good results and move on with their lives, just like people who receive mammograms, colonoscopies and other screenings. But sometimes, the results warrant more investigation, which means more interactions between Perkins and his patients.

That’s often when Perkins learns about their needs — needs that go far beyond medical care. They can’t afford another cab ride to the hospital for a biopsy. They’re behind on utility bills and days away from losing power. They’re out of food and don’t know where to turn. 

In those situations, he turns to Cone Health Philanthropy and its many funds to help patients in crisis. Perkins’ mind operates like a drop-down menu on a website as he talks to patients.

He thinks, “If a patient needs cab fare, then I’ll point him to the Patient Emergency Fund.”

Or, “If a patient mentions that she can’t afford an inhaler for her grandchild, I’ll send her to the Childhood Asthma Fund.”

“I hear a lot of the inside scoop when I'm talking to patients, and even before COVID-19, there were a great deal of people who were in need,” says Perkins, who has worked as a nurse for 24 years. “There are a lot of people in our community who have lost jobs, or are dealing with their child’s illness or their own — situations that make meeting their day-to-day needs very difficult, if not impossible.” 

One of the Cone Health Philanthropy funds that Perkins uses most often for patients is the Terrell Lung Legacy Fund, which pays for low-dose lung CT scans for patients who are eligible regardless of their ability to pay. It was created by a former Cone Health employee. Her uncle, who had died from lung cancer, and another family member left her an inheritance. The donor wanted to make a difference in the community. She understood the importance of early detection and its ability to significantly improve survival rates — and she didn’t want cost to be a barrier for anyone.

Studies show that lung cancer kills 13 North Carolinians every day — but that number could drastically decrease with early detection.

“Lung cancer, every year, kills more people than breast, colon and prostate cancer put together,” Perkins says. “If you catch lung cancer at an early stage, it’s more likely to be cured. But most lung cancers are diagnosed in stage three or four, where their survival rates are around 20 percent.”

Many times, lung cancer requires surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatments, which gives Perkins multiple opportunities to speak to patients as he helps coordinate their care. That’s when he learns about the needs they have that go well beyond cancer treatment.

“A lot of times, I've had patients who need a lung cancer screening, but they haven't been able to arrange for transportation to get them to our location. Or they may have a suspicious finding and they can't get a ride for a biopsy,” Perkins says. “I've had to work out whether to put them on our cancer center van or use our philanthropy funds to provide a voucher for a cab or gas money just to get them basic transportation to a very important appointment.”

Patients find the help reassuring, according to Perkins. People in need are often used to doing without rather than asking for assistance — if they even know assistance is available to begin with. 

“It’s a private thing for many people,” he says. “They’re reluctant to accept help, and definitely would not ask for it. But when you are talking with people and you realize there are barriers to them getting the care that they need, that's when you have to dig a little bit deeper and get to the root of the barriers to see if we can assist them.”

Perkins isn’t alone in going the extra mile for patients. Employees across the entire Cone Health system use the funds available through Cone Health Philanthropy to increase the quality of their patients’ lives. It’s a part of the system’s mission to treat the whole patient, not just their illnesses.

“Helping tackle barriers to receiving the appropriate health care is just a really important way that we show that we're part of the community,” he says. “It shows what we stand for here at Cone Health Alamance Regional Medical Center. We excel at being a community facility. We are a part of this community.”

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