Alumnae, Rachel Harken (left) and Christy Bender (right)
Nutrition and dietetics play a major role in the treatment and recovery of cancer patients. In her role as clinical dietitian lead at the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Cancer Institute, Rachel Harken (BS ’95, MS ’99) works as part of the Oncology Navigation team. She builds relationships with patients and utilizes different nutrition therapies to help alleviate some of the nutrition-related side effects that often accompany chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.
At the same time, she builds relationships with students in the Dietitian Nutritionist Oncology Nutrition specialty rotation, ensuring their clinical experience prepares them to be ready on day one to provide personalized nutrition support for patients in an outpatient oncology practice.
“Specialty rotations are quite unique,” says Harken. “So are the students who complete them.”
During a rigorous 12-week program, students spend more than 400 hours working under the supervision of a highly skilled preceptor like Harken.
According to Trisha A. Cousins, clinical coordinator and assistant professor, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition (SMN), students who choose the Oncology Nutrition specialty not only get hands-on experience on how to screen, assess and provide nutrition education and counseling, they also benefit from Harken’s innate ability to teach.
“Rachel has a passion for mentoring future dietitians,” observes Cousins. “She places a high value on teaching how and when to apply clinical judgment and skills. She has an admirable way of creating a positive yet inspiring environment in which students thrive and achieve their personal potential.”
“During my specialty rotation in oncology, Rachel taught me that a clinical dietitian is able to make the biggest difference in patients’ lives by relating to them on a level that is deeper than their diagnosis and their current health issues,” notes Christy Bender (MS ’22).
Now working alongside Harken in Oncology Navigation at the AHN Cancer Institute at Jefferson Hospital, Bender strives to emulate her mentor.
“Rachel possesses all of the soft skills that are required to make an impact in this field: empathy, patience and compassion,” continues Bender. “That’s what I strive to bring to my patients every single day.”
“Our most important role and responsibility is to help patients get through their treatment,” explains Harken. “We really get to know our patients, their families and caregivers. It’s a personal connection.”
She says students notice the effort that goes into relationship building.
“When patients trust you, they’re more likely to try the tips, recipe ideas or nutritional supplements that you present to them. When you can help them improve their nutrition and maintain their weight in spite of the various nutrition-related side effects they may experience, then they will be able to continue their treatment regimen as planned,” says Bender.
“It’s very rewarding to know you’re helping to improve their health outcomes down the road,” she adds.
In addition to building rapport with patients, Harken emphasizes the importance of building relationships with other members of the health care team. “As part of the Oncology Navigation team, we work with nurses, doctors, the infusion staff and other medical professionals on a daily basis,” says Harken. “We come to rely on each other for important information about patients and how we can best address specific concerns we may have.”
“The specialty rotations at Pitt are what set this program apart from others,” declares Bender. She says it helps students hone in on areas of nutrition that they are passionate about, then gain experience in the field before they graduate.
“I believe my experience in the Oncology Nutrition specialty rotation gave me the confidence and experience I needed to be hired for the job that I love right after I earned my master’s degree,” she continues. “It also allowed me to build many connections within this career path, which is invaluable.”
“We are grateful to Rachel for her leadership, initiative and innovation,” adds Cousins. “She was instrumental in helping us develop our Oncology Nutrition specialty rotation and is an exceptional clinical instructor for our dietetics students.”
“We are proud to say we nominated Rachel—and she was awarded—the Outstanding Preceptor Award for the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (PAND) this year,” says Deborah Hutcheson, program director and assistant professor, Dietitian Nutritionist program. “She is most worthy of the honor.”
This article was featured in the Fall 2022 edition of FACETS.
Published February 7, 2023