Introduction

Hi everyone! My name is Kailen Heath and I’m a rising senior majoring in Nursing. While I wish I was in Pittsburgh this summer, I will be completing my research at home near Boston, Massachusetts. On campus, I am a peer mentor for Nursing Chemistry and I am involved in greek life as a member of Alpha Delta Pi where I recently finished my term as the Vice President of Marketing. Something interesting about myself is that I love traveling. Some of my favorite destinations include Ireland, Switzerland, and Italy. For my next trip, I want to visit national parks in the Western U.S.

Three years ago, I became interested in the Head and Neck Cancer (HNC) patient population through an internship at a surgical robotics company. Disease of the delicate structures in the head and neck region restrict vital functions such as eating, breathing, and communicating. Because there are no tools for early detection, patients typically present when the disease has spread beyond the original tumor site. When the cancer progresses to advanced stages, a combination of treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, are required to reach remission. However, the short- and long-term effects of such aggressive treatment may require patients to seek post-treatment care in the emergency department or on an inpatient unit. Previous research has focused on clinical factors responsible for post-treatment care, yet these studies overlook social determinants that may contribute to readmission. My project will investigate the impact health literacy has on hospital utilization in the 30-day period after HNC patients finish treatment.

I was introduced to my mentor, Dr. Marci Nilsen, through my freshman year honors seminar. Her areas of interest within the field of HNC research include identification, treatment, and development of interventions to manage symptoms and treatment-related effects. She coordinates the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic which brings together surgeons, nurses, speech language pathologists, dentists, physical therapist, audiologists, and dieticians in a multidisciplinary approach to aid in successful management of cancer survivors. This approach has validated the need and importance of my research topic to many specialties within health care. Health literacy also has a broader context among other academic areas as it is interconnected to other social determinants of health. These determinants include economic stability, education, social and community context, and neighborhood and built environment. To remedy the effects cancer has on its survivors the solution requires cross functional collaboration that focus on these areas.

Originally my career goal was to become a nurse anesthetist, but through my exposure to cancer patients, I have started to consider working in the field of palliative care. However, the nursing profession provides many paths to find what one is passionate about, and I have not officially chosen one yet. Wherever I end up, research will always be essential to expand knowledge within nursing science. The Brackenridge Fellowship will serve as an introduction to the research community and aid in developing useful skills for collaborating with other fields. Aside from technical skills, a nurse’s role is using one’s knowledge to advocate for the patient’s preferences and provide the best possible care. This fellowship will provide the unique opportunity to practice combining resources from many disciplines and disseminating information in simple terminology. Because the nursing curriculum does not allow for much flexibility in course selection, I am looking forward to learning about other areas of study from the other fellows!

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