Leann Denney is pictured in the chemotherapy ward at Oklahoma City’s VA Hospital, where she serves as a nurse navigator.

story and photo by Traci Chapman

Leann Denney has always had a sense of adventure and a love of life — it’s something that’s served her in good stead as she helps patients through the challenges of chemotherapy.
Denney’s sense of adventure led her to Oklahoma City’s VA Hospital, where she works as a chemotherapy nurse navigator. While cancer and chemotherapy are, of course, nothing new, nurse navigators are a relatively new idea, something the VA Hospital has embraced in its “whole health” treatment of veterans.
“It’s something that’s evolving, in a way a different way of looking at nursing,” Denney said.
An official definition of nurse navigator is educator and advocate for patients and caregivers, but Denney and her fellow VA colleagues know it is so much more.
“In navigation — it’s not in your job description, but you’re chasing a lead,” Denney said. “It’s a growing thing, and every day is different.”
Cancer innovations might change some things, but the difficulties of both the disease and its treatments remain. For some patients, chemotherapy and other resources might be more difficult for a patient to physically tolerate than the cancer itself, Denney said. The all-encompassing nature of the disease impacts not just the patient, but everyone around them, she said.
“There is so much to chemotherapy — we work through their regimens, go through their general care, side effects and how we can help them treat them, here are the tools you have at home,” Denney said. “The whole family is involved and when things come up they call me — I’m a sounding board, but it also allows me to make sure they get other treatments when they need them.”
These include things like nutritional counseling or psychotherapy for patients that are facing perhaps the biggest challenge of their life. Depression can be common, both for patients and their families, Denney said.
“It’s interesting because people don’t think of women as veterans, but there’s more and more of that, so we have breast cancer as a condition we’re treating,” she said.
No matter who the patient might be, Denney said each one — and their families — become part of her department’s own extended family.
“We get to know each other and we come to care so much for them, and it’s returned, which is very special for us,” she said.
As Denney and other health providers assist their patients through their difficult journey, they in turn receive many resources from American Cancer Society, she said. ACS provides meetings for both caregivers and patients, as well as offering wigs to female patients who lose their hair during chemotherapy and more.
“They really are a huge resource for us,” Denney said.
The help is appreciated by a nurse navigator who can see 15 to 20 patients in a day — treating, educating, counseling, helping them to find resources and more, Denney said.
While Denney said she can’t see ever wanting to leave the VA or her patients, her path to that position started very differently — and many miles away. Living in East Texas, Denney majored in journalism and that’s where she started, as a reporter for the Lufkin Daily News.
It was there she had an assignment that would change Denney’s career trajectory, she said.
“I interviewed Dr. (Michael) Debakey, the heart surgeon in his lab in east Texas and my next story was about the nursing shortage,” she said. “I had a roommate who was a nursing student, and I helped her study — I just decided to move back home and go to nursing school.”
In her senior year clinicals while attending the University of Texas at Arlington, Denney worked in the kidney/liver transplant at Baylor University. After her graduation, she knew she wanted to be a traveling nurse, something that would impact every facet of her life.
“My first assignment was in Miami, Florida, and they put me in this apartment that wasn’t ready — it needed to be painted, the furniture was all jumbled up — and they offered for a surgery assistant they had there to come help me,” Denney said. “I said OK, and that was my future husband.”
Together, the couple traveled as visiting nurses, going from Florida to Reno, Nevada and more, Denney said. Eventually, they moved to Kansas City, where Mark Denney could continue schooling to become a physician’s assistant; they moved to Oklahoma City in 1999.
For a time, Denney worked nights while her children were small but finally achieved her goal of joining the VA Hospital in 2013.
“It was like coming home,” she said.