For Cheryl Propst, nursing is personal.
Years ago, Cheryl’s grandson was born deaf. When he was not quite three years old, he received cochlear implants, which are a type of hearing aid that has internal and external parts. The procedure went well, and he seemed to be doing fine.
One day while playing with a cousin at his other grandparents’ house, he passed out. At first everyone thought he was just playing a silly toddler game. But when they realized he was unresponsive, they rushed him to the emergency room.
“The doctors worked for hours and hours on little Alex,” Cheryl said. “He didn’t make it.”
Alex’s cochlear implants had caused an infection that spread to his heart. The inflammation around his heart caused arrhythmia and ultimately heart failure. Arrhythmia can be a genetic condition, and there was a history of it in Cheryl’s son-in-law’s family.
“At the time of Alex’s death,” she said, “I didn’t know any of this – how the heart works. But I wanted to understand. And I wanted to help people.”
Cheryl, who had been a flight attendant for 18 years, now had a personal reason to pursue a career in medicine. She completed her nursing degree and got a job in cardiology. “I knew every arrhythmia, and could feel it just from taking someone’s pulse,” she said. “I was drawn to this work because of what happened to my grandson.”
She couldn’t save her grandson. But she would go on to save others.
Coming to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) felt like coming home to her.
“This is my niche – case management in the Medicare population,” she said. “This is my gift, my talent. It has brought me to another level of passion and compassion.”
The Medicare members that Cheryl talks to are mostly in their 70s and 80s, and many of them are dealing with chronic health conditions. She’s familiar with this population, as she helps take care of her parents, both of whom are 88. “When I’m talking to members,” she said, “I think – what would I say to my parents? How would I want someone to talk to them?”
So when a 92-year-old member said he wasn’t feeling well, Cheryl quickly took action.
“His symptoms told me he needed emergency care,” she said. “He called 911 on his mobile while I was on the landline. I talked to the EMS. I also called his caregiver so they could get to the hospital. He was going to stay alive on my watch.”
That wasn’t the first, or last, time Cheryl had saved a life over the phone. She was recently talking to the wife of a member who was home, recently discharged from a heart catheter procedure. Cheryl said, “His wife told me his vision was blurry, his arm was swollen, he was weak, and his gait was unsteady. She’d thought this was part of the normal healing process after the surgery. But I knew these were signs of a stroke.”
She told the member’s wife that he needed medical care immediately. “When I know one of my members is in trouble, I’m like a ferocious bull,” she said. Cheryl had advised they go straight to the ER. “I talked to the member’s wife recently and he’s doing well,” Cheryl said. “In fact, he was out mowing the lawn! I told her to make sure he stayed hydrated and out of that sun!”
Cheryl plays the part of nurse, friend, coach, cheerleader – whatever the member needs from her. She takes experiences from her own life – caring for her parents, the death of her grandson, her brother’s stroke – to relate to them.
“I had a member whose husband had recently committed suicide,” she said. “I know about grief. No one can tell you how to walk your journey of grief. You walk the journey like you need to walk the journey. I can show them I understand, and I care.”
She said, “I tell my parents, ‘I talk about you at work.’ My daddy is on dialysis. He went through that wave of emotions and depression when he started it, but now he looks forward to it to see his buddies. My mom has dementia.” She is happy the dementia has not progressed to the point that her mom does not recognize her husband or children yet. “I have experience with what some members are going through.”
Loneliness and isolation can also be prevalent in the Medicare population. “Sometimes they have family or children, but no one visits. They’re eating only canned food. They are on a fixed income and can’t afford fresh vegetable and fruits. Some must decide between food and medications. They’re dependent on a neighbor. There was one man who had frostbite on his toes because he didn’t have heat. It is heartbreaking,” she said.
When asked about her “why” – the reason she does this work, she said, “The reason why I do this is because I love the members. I want to meet them at point of need. Even if it’s not a need and it’s a want – I’m going to find a way to help them. When I get off the phone, I want them to feel encouraged or at least know that someone cares for them.”
She said, “These members think I am doing something for them, but they are also doing something for me. When I see a member’s needs being met, that is medicine to me. That is joy to me.”
She wanted to recognize her colleagues in case management and said that any one of them would make the same decisions to help members. “I want to acknowledge every complex case manager; our team leads and managers – they all do a fantastic job. I admire them all.”
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