Working in a New Normal: Guidance Through Challenging Times

From cancer patients to community members, Valarie Worthy empowers people around her

Part of the Profiles of Staff and Faculty During COVID-19 Series
Valarie Worthy
Duke Cancer Center's Valarie Worthy is a comforting presence for patients treating cancer at Duke. Photo courtesy of Valarie Worthy.

Name: Valarie Worthy

Position: Patient Navigator Manager, Duke Cancer Center

Years at Duke: 17

What she does at Duke: From diagnosis to treatment, cancer patients face a host of medical challenges during their journey. But there are other issues – such as transportation, difficulty understanding treatment options or even finding the way through Duke’s medical campus – that can also prove difficult. That’s where Worthy and her fellow patient navigators come in. They’re the sympathetic faces who help patients find their way.

Worthy often assists patients facing transportation challenges find resources that can get them to and from appointments. She often sits in on consultations with patients who need help understanding their diagnosis or plan for treatment.

“We help people navigate the Duke Cancer Center, but we also identify any barriers that would keep them from receiving their care or would interrupt their care,” Worthy said. “There’s enough to worry about with the diagnosis itself. Giving a patient fewer things to worry about goes a long toward better outcomes.”

Valarie Worthy's home office.How her job has changed during the pandemic: The job of a patient navigator got tougher during the pandemic. They have less face-to-face time with patients while working remotely, meaning much of the contact is by phone. And the largely volunteer-operated community organizations that often provide help for patients have seen their pool of volunteers – and by extension, their offerings – decrease.

“We’re having to take a deeper dive into what other resources are available in the community to help our patients,” said Worthy, who both works with patients and helps oversee a group of roughly a dozen navigators.

What aspect of work she’s most proud of during the pandemic: When the pandemic hit, Worthy said there was widespread concern at Duke Cancer Center and elsewhere that people would put off treatment or skip preventive medicine appointments out of fear of contracting COVID-19.

But when she, and her colleagues, talked to patients by phone, or encountered friends and neighbors, Worthy reminded them stick to treatment plans and screening schedules because Duke’s facilities were safe.

“We would always tell people about how this is a safe place, Duke has wonderful precautions, so you can come back and get your treatments, you can come back for your scans,” Worthy said. “To be able to go out into our communities and have those discussions has been important. We were very proud to be able to go out and have those relationships with people in our community so we could promote those messages.”

What has gotten her through the pandemic: Just like it did before the pandemic, Worthy’s faith has been an uplifting force in her life. And during the pandemic, she was able to help her fellow parishioners at The River Church, by using her knowledge of the health care system to be a source of guidance on COVID-19 safety and the importance of getting vaccinated.

In fact, before many Sunday services – which were both online and in person with physical distancing – Senior Pastor Ronald Godbee would have Worthy field questions about the virus, helping give out trusted advice and dispel misconceptions.

“To be able to get that information and then channel it to my church community, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty good,’” Worthy said. “That’s been one of my highlights. It was so meaningful.”

How she is maintaining her well-being: Living in a neighborhood with good sidewalks, Worthy jokes that there’s no excuse for her not to get out and walk. But with walking becoming a key wellness practice for her over the past year, she doesn’t need much convincing.

She’ll go for short walks at several points during the day, whenever she needs to get fresh air and clear her head.

“Walking is like taking medicine,” Worthy said. “It makes you feel so good. Your mind is clear. When you come back, you have fresh ideas and a different view of things.”

Lesson learned during the pandemic: Worthy said she’s learned plenty during the past year.

Among the lessons: she doesn’t need as much as she thought to be happy, life is harder than you think when cut off from supportive networks of friends and family, and you shouldn’t be afraid to admit when you’re not OK.

Perhaps the most important thing she’s learned is that, after the pandemic ends, we shouldn’t go back to the same old way of looking at the world, and those we share it with.

“At the end of all of this, if all we take away was that there was a virus that killed people and we all had to take a vaccine, then we’ve lost what I believe this COVID experience was all about,” Worthy said. “If we allow it to, this experience can bring out our better selves.”

Something most people don’t know about her: Every few weeks, Worthy heads back to her hometown of Ahoskie, in northeastern North Carolina, to visit her 86-year old mother Myrtle Clark, who still lives in the same house where Worthy grew up.

“Sometimes, I like to sit on my mom’s porch and dream about when I used to be a kid,” Worthy said. “It was easy, all you had to do was do your homework and eat. Those were the days.”

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