DeKalb Medical nurse manager Regina Duncan

DeKalb nurse manager tears down language barriers through compassion

DeKalb Medical's entire oncology staff offered love and support when a 23-year-old cancer patient who could not speak English sought care in their unit. Oncology Unit Nurse Manager Regina Duncan felt a special connection, though. After all, she knew what it was to be a stranger in a foreign land needing help.

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The tale of compassion and caring unfolded like this: The man was a frequent patient. His parents, who also spoke no English, stayed by his side, wouldn't leave. The staff stayed right there with them, each concentrating on making this dying man feel loved and supported.

The man died in September, surrounded by his family and loving staff of nurses who cared about him. His parents' dedication to his compassionate care had resulted in both losing their jobs, but they were there to ease his passing, too.

Duncan didn't let it end there. She organized a collection, so the broke and grieving family could have more than $1,000 to help cover cremation costs. She and 13 oncology unit staff attended his funeral. There, an interpreter for the family tearfully told the staff how much happiness they'd brought to the patient's short life.

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A Georgia nurse's international journey

Duncan speaks flawless English, but it is not her first language. She herself was once the outsider in the U.S.

A chemist in her native Mexico, she first moved to Canada when her then-husband was transferred there. She studied nursing at Sault Ste Marie and became a nurse at age 35. Then she transferred again, this time to the U.S. A month later, Sept. 11 happened, and all immigration was put to a halt. Divorced by then, Young was looking for nursing jobs, but working as a waitress and cleaning offices to support her children. "I was a foreigner," she says softly.

Her relief was immeasurable when DeKalb Medical agreed to sponsor her immigration. She started as a night shift nurse in 2002, became a clinical coordinator in the oncology renal unit in 2006, and nurse manager of the same unit three years ago.

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DeKalb Medical recently graduated the first class of delegates to the Center for Nursing Practice: (front row from left) Donna Brandon, Barbara O’Regan, Regina Duncan, JoAnn Davis, Jessy Joseph and Agnes DeGuia. Cyprian Vicars, Audery Henderson-Williams, Amanda Jones, Valerie Campbell, Andrea Wilkins, Leah Tollison and Ana Rickett are on the back row.
Photo: Photo courtesy of DeKalb Medical

The whole time, she's been dedicated to oncology nursing, encouraging patients who have a difficult road ahead, helping them find hope in desperate situations. "My love for the cancer population began with an amazing preceptor when I was in my last semester of nursing," Duncan says. "I was placed there because no one wanted to go to the oncology unit because 'it was too depressing.' My preceptor taught me not only how to manage the complexity of the skills required to provide care for that population, but how to find joy in your work, and how important it was to bring joy to those around you. Twenty years later, here I am caring for oncology nurses and trying to pay this forward."

Duncan has worked many joyous days since then, but she's the first to admit that facing cancer each day at work can be a struggle. To counter the sheer weight, she says she uses humor and tries not to take herself too seriously. "I laugh at myself," she says. "I share my shortcomings freely. I allow myself to be less than perfect and still worthy. I share stories that are both uplifting and funny."

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Now 14 years into her second marriage, she also travels as much as her schedule allows. She camps in North Georgia on occasion and treasures worldwide travel. "Anywhere in the world, you tell me, 'let's go,' and I'll go!" she says.

Throughout her career and up to this day, she uses her language skills and love of world culture however and wherever it's needed. "Interacting with the cleaning people or painters, telling people where the cafeteria is, communicating with social workers when a family's language skills desert them, I'll do any of that," she says with a lift to her voice. "I always use my very best Spanish."

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