Profiles in Cancer Research
Bertie Ford: Mentoring Oncology Nurses and Helping the Underserved
Senior clinical oncology specialist
Bertie Ford knows what a difference a good mentor can make in a new nurse’s career. Even before deciding to become a nurse, while working at the Ohio Cancer Information Service, she was inspired by a lecture on cancer screening and prevention by visiting oncology nurse Elaine Glass. “I decided, ‘I want to do what she does,’” recalled Ford, who is now a senior clinical oncology specialist with Genentech BioOncology.
After Ford received her master’s degree in nursing from Ohio State University (OSU), Glass hired and supervised her at the OSU medical center cancer unit. During that time, Glass recommended Ford as a speaker for a meeting of a local American Cancer Society (ACS) chapter. That “was a great learning experience for me,” she recalled, and it served as an introduction to Ford’s subsequent success as a speaker, program planner, and leader in ACS and Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) local chapters. Her boss also motivated Ford to participate in nursing grand rounds for a program about phase I clinical trials.
When Ford decided to pursue a career as a research nurse several years later, however, “I did not have good [mentoring relationships] with my colleagues and managers,” she said. “I had to figure out what my role was going to be,” she explained, especially when she transitioned from being a staff nurse who was focused on primary care to a clinical trial nurse, which requires complex organizational and record-keeping skills.
Ford has since spent her career mentoring a host of oncology nurses. Her long-time leadership role in the Columbus chapter of ONS has been key to her mentoring activities. Among other things, she encourages involvement in research and in efforts to reach out to medically underserved populations.
In a recent interview with ONS Connect magazine, she said: “Professional involvement feeds your soul. I came up with a Rookie of the Year Award to reward young nurses who became involved in my chapter and made a difference early on. Our first Rookie of the Year is now president-elect of our chapter!”
One nurse who has greatly benefited from Ford’s support and advice is Torri Curtis, who works in the hematology-oncology unit at the OSU Comp–Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (the James). Curtis met Ford shortly after graduating from nursing school, when they worked together in the oncology nursing unit at OSU medical center. “I had also become involved with the Columbus [ONS] chapter, so I would see [Bertie] at the chapter meetings and on the oncology floor,” she said.
In both places, Ford “was a great mentor to me,” Curtis said. She encouraged Curtis to run for the position of chapter historian. In addition, when the James Cancer Hospital opened in 1990, Curtis moved to the facility, where Ford was a nursing administrator for clinical research. “There are a lot of clinical trials that go on at the James, and it was growing rapidly at that time,” she said.
Ford urged Curtis to pursue a clinical research position at the James. “I was working more with phase I studies,” she said. “Bertie helped guide me on what I needed to do to organize those studies, as well as all the reviews and documentation needed for clinical trials.” And Ford encouraged Curtis to attend clinical trial research conferences.
Ford, who is African American, also saw the need early on to foster education for health care providers, including nurses, to engage in community outreach for better cancer control and treatment of underserved minority populations. In 1993, when she was president of the Columbus ONS chapter, Ford set up a Community Outreach Committee “to educate and partner and do things with the community,” she said.
With a series of small education grants over the next few years, the committee established a number of programs targeted at health care providers and underserved groups, including cultural competency workshops, health fairs, and the annual Breast Health Fashion Show, which is now in its sixth year. These efforts were also recognized at the ONS 2012 Congress, where the Columbus chapter’s committee, which now has 20 members, received the Pearl Moore “Making a Difference” Team Achievement Award.
Ford believes that mentoring nurses and other providers to be more culturally competent is key to increasing the enrollment of medically underserved populations in clinical research studies.
“The problem is that a lot of researchers and health providers are defensive about that,” she noted. “They say ‘we treat everybody the same and that’s a good thing.’” But, by better understanding another culture, “you can help increase those patients’ comfort with you, and they are more willing to listen to what you’re saying when you talk about participating in research,” she noted.
“Mistrust of medical institutions is a big obstacle” to attracting minority patients, Ford added. “You have to always be partnering with their communities in order to overcome that fear.”
Ford’s legacy as a mentor and contributor to the field of oncology nursing led ONS to recognize her with the ONS National Mentorship Award at its 37th Annual Congress last May.
Ford doesn’t intend to stop now: “My mentoring has become more global in terms of both my thinking and action,” she said. “The scope has changed from just a local ONS chapter to regional to national levels, encouraging greater involvement by oncology nurses in their field. We all can truly make a difference.”