Joy Hepkins, RN OCN, Oncology Nurse Navigator and Cancer Care Coordinator at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, PA, has been a nurse for 33 years. Raised in South Africa during apartheid, she studied accounting in college. But a spiritual experience led her to her true calling – nursing.

What made you decide to go into the nursing field? What inspired you?

I was raised in Apartheid South Africa in the 1970’s. The atrocities of apartheid made me a bitter and angry person. I actively got involved in the struggle of eradicating the apartheid regime while I was at the University of Western Cape studying accounting. The South African Security Police Force was hot on my tail when I managed to escape from the police and found myself in an Anglican Convent where I had a spiritual encounter and my life changed altogether. I experienced a spiritual and emotional change of heart.

What then inspired me was my newfound faith in the Lord where I was redirected to go to nursing school and that is where I found my calling for caring for sick people. The Lord changed my heart from bitterness and anger and replaced it with love, care and compassion to all peoples because this is His mantra: to set the captives free and to heal the sick.

What has been your career path? What led you to where you are today?

While in South Africa in 1981, I was recruited by Temple University Hospital (TUH). This was my saving grace to get out of South Africa. I worked at TUH for seven years. I married my husband in 1983 and we moved to the suburbs, in Yeadon. In June 1989 I accepted a per diem position at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby. With my background and training from South Africa I could work on any medical unit and in any capacity. I worked on the medical-surgical unit, labor and delivery, nursery, ICU, ER, and Psych unit and then Oncology and that is where I found my niche! I was drawn in more and more to caring for cancer patients. I found that in my experience as a nurse and the love I have for the nursing profession I was drawn to caring for patients that have cancer. The type of care that is required for that population of patients matched perfectly to the care that I was called on to give!  I have been caring for cancer patients now since 1993 and still love it!

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Describe your current position and what impact you have as a nurse in your current role.

My current position at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital is an Oncology Nurse Navigator (ONN). My role is to navigate the patient from the time they are diagnosed with cancer through the treatment course and through the survival process. By having an ONN right from the start to walk patients through the treatment process helps alleviate their fears and reduces anxiety. In order to promote accessibility of care, I assist them in keeping all their appointments such as diagnostics and tests, oncology and radiation, doctor’s visits and other related appointments. In the process of navigating along with the doctor, I assist in education about the disease process and treatment course.

What impacted my care and role as an ONN was first my experience in caring for cancer patients over the years coupled with the perpetual oncology education that I attained over the years. I am certified as a Chemotherapy and Biotherapy nurse, meaning I can infuse and educate patients about the effects of chemotherapy and biotherapy. On the national level I have a Certification in Oncology Nursing (OCN) through ONS.  

Have you had any issues related to being a minority nurse? If so, explain.

I have had issues in past (1981-1983) “as a minority minority” nurse coming from South Africa. I was not accepted by other minority colleagues because of fear that their position would be jeopardized when another educated “African” came in to take their position while they were struggling to get ahead themselves in a racially discriminating society. 

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I had two issues: one was that I was told to “go back to Africa where you came from.” Another was my nursing colleagues had some notion that the United States was educating us in our native land by teaching us English and nursing and then bringing us here to take the position of the African American nurses.

I understood their fear since I had just come in from a racially discriminating South African government I was empathetic to my African American nursing colleagues and tried not to take their non-acceptance personally. Rather I sought to bridge the gap and to use the situation in building, repairing and trusting each other so we can work together and help our fellow brothers and sisters that are ill and need our care in the profession of nursing.

What general advice do you have for other minority nurses? 

Work hard, study hard, maintain a positive attitude in caring for sick patients. Keep abreast with all new trends and innovations in the medical and nursing education and profession. Advance yourself by taking a certification course in the discipline that you are in. As minority nurses there are so few of us in the nursing profession I would encourage those in the profession to be a mentor to other minority nurses in order to build, recruit and expand our numbers as this will inject trust and amenability in caring for minority patients.

Denene Brox is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.

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