A PH Nurse Story
Deb McCollister, RN, BSN
Deborah McCollister, RN, BSN, is an active member of PHA and the PH community. She is the recipient of the 2010 Outstanding Medical Professional Award, presented at PHA’s 9th International PH Conference and Scientific Sessions in Garden Grove, Calif. Deb has served on the PH Professional Network (formerly PH Resource Network) Executive Committee and helped to plan both the 2007 and 2009 PH Resource Network Symposia. This past year, she conducted a study on depression and PAH and co-authored an article in Advances in Pulmonary Hypertension on her findings. Deb recently spoke with us about her involvement in the PH community.
What initially sparked your interest in PH?
I started my career as an oncology nurse, first in the hospital setting for two years and then in research for about 10 years. I’ve always been interested in being on the cutting edge of treatment development, so being a research nurse coordinator has always suited me perfectly. I took a break for a while when I had kids, and when I decided to go back to work, I saw an ad for a pulmonary hypertension nurse coordinator in the newspaper. I didn’t know anything about PH at the time, but I thought the position sounded really interesting.
When I started this position in 2003, there were very few FDA approved drugs and only a handful of ongoing research studies. I became very interested in the PH population, and I found many similarities between the challenges PH patients face and oncology patients face: an uncertain prognosis, an incurable disease with few treatments and psychological struggles.
What excites you most about the progress you have seen in the PH field?
I have been in this position for seven years and have seen the number of PH drugs approved by the FDA nearly triple, but we still don’t have a cure for the disease. Current therapies center on modulating the symptoms of PH and slowing the progression of the disease, which is important, but I think it’s time to focus on potential cures.
This is not to say that current medications are not helpful to patients, because they certainly are. I have seen them help patients live many, many years. One of my patients, who participated in a research study, is now raising her great-grandson. This wouldn’t have been possible without the current medications.
What PH cases stand out in your mind?
I had a patient who was a train engineer. He was a tough-as-nails kind of guy; swearing was part of his vocabulary. He had a past diagnosis of cancer but was cancer free when he became my patient. He participated in one of my research studies, and I got to know him and his family very well. As his disease progressed, he became less able to do simple things, and he taught me what it really means to live with PH. I remember one time when he said to me, with intense emotion, “I have a real hard time watching my wife mow the lawn.” This helped me see what it was like to be him. There are many losses that go along with having PH, but it's how you deal with these losses that will determine whether you will be content or unhappy with your life.
Can you tell us about your current research project?
My colleagues and I at the University of Colorado completed a two-center study looking at the prevalence of depressive symptoms in patients with PH. We found 55 percent of patients had depressive symptoms. We’re hoping to build on that study and look at how depressive symptoms affect quality of life and functional status in PH patients. In our clinic, we are trying to be more proactive in looking for depressive symptoms in our patient population, and we have implemented a strategy to assess all our patients for depression so that patients are more likely to be diagnosed and treated.
You co-chaired PHPN Symposia in 2007 and 2009. How did you decide to take on this role?
I’m a “big project” person. I had attended the 2005 Symposium, and it was the first time I felt like, “WOW, there are all these other nurses and allied health professionals doing exactly what I’m doing.” I felt such a sense of belonging after that Symposium. The Symposia are professionally very satisfying to do; education is key to improving the quality of care.