Farmer ‘feeling good’ with help from cancer navigator

Sanford Health nurse acts as patients’ main contact from diagnosis through treatment

Nurse navigator in face mask sits down to meet with a cancer patient in an exam room.

At 72, Jim Hall thought he’d be retired by now, tending to his garden or repairing old tractors for fun. But that’s not usually how it goes for farmers. Hall rented his first plot of land as a junior in high school and is still farming some 55 years later near Jackson, Minnesota.

He knows life rarely goes as planned. That became obvious last year when a string of health problems resulted in a scary diagnosis: glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that often forms in the frontal or temporal lobes.

Hall, his kids and his significant other took notice when he started making little mistakes.

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” Hall said. “I couldn’t drive my combine like I normally do. I usually make my own breakfast in the morning, and I’d leave the burner on. Little things like that.”

But it wasn’t the slip-ups that first sent him to the doctor; rather it was an E. coli infection that was causing him digestive distress. After Hall got that cleared up at the VA Clinic in Spirit Lake, Iowa, his daughter insisted something was still wrong. She felt Hall was exhibiting symptoms similar to his father, who suffered mini strokes. On Nov. 17, 2021, Hall had a CT scan at the clinic that detected his brain tumor.

Find cancer care: Nurse navigators are part of your team at Sanford Health

He was sent to Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for surgery. They operated on Nov. 29, and Hall was back home in Minnesota by Dec. 2, getting around normally and recovering well.

Navigating the cancer journey

Hall met his nurse navigator, Kayla Ahrenstorff, in Worthington in mid-December.

As an oncology nurse navigator at Sanford Health, Ahrenstorff’s job is to facilitate excellent care for cancer patients. She coordinates and attends appointments, translates confusing medical language into digestible information, provides mental and emotional support to patients and families and connects them to outside resources.

“My goal is to make sure that a patient’s cancer journey is as seamless as possible,” Ahrenstorff said. “I oversee their care from diagnosis through treatment, acting as their main point of contact.”

Most importantly, Ahrenstorff represents the best interests of her patients in ongoing communication with their care team. Oncology nurse navigators like Ahrenstorff are an essential piece of Sanford Health’s team approach to cancer care.

As the only nurse navigator in Worthington, Ahrenstorff is especially important.

“It sometimes feels like I’m on an island, but thankfully I know a lot of nurse navigators and practitioners in Sioux Falls,” she said. “We have a great team approach between Sioux Falls and Worthington where everyone works together for the patients.”

Still, some responsibilities fall squarely on Ahrenstorff in Worthington.

“With ours being a smaller facility, I do all the chemo education,” she said. “So when a patient starts treatment, I spend an hour or two of my day educating them in person.”

At Hall’s first appointment with Ahrenstorff, he learned he’d need radiation and chemotherapy to keep his cancer at bay.

He received 30 rounds of radiation and took chemo pills for 40 days to start, followed by his current routine of five days of chemo, four weeks off and five days back on again. He’ll stick to that schedule for a total of six months.

Ahrenstorff said Hall has responded well to treatment. Hall agrees.

“As far as the surgery, chemo and radiation, it’s gone great. I’ve got no complaints about it,” he said.

Mutual appreciation

Hall has gained a great respect for nurses through his cancer journey, noting their resilience and helpfulness in particular.

“I really think highly of the nurses. They’re not scared to do anything with you,” he said. “With some things in the hospital, you lose all dignity. But you learn to respect the nurses who take care of you.”

Ahrenstorff said the feeling is mutual.

“The patients are the most rewarding part of this job,” she said. “And Jim is just a great guy to be around.”

Hall is feeling good now. He was back to work in time for spring planting.

“I’m driving, working and doing things I like to do again. Before I went to Sanford, the doctors at the VA thought I might not make it out of the hospital. Well, I’m out and I’m doing just fine.”

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Treatments, Jackson, Nursing and Nursing Support, Worthington