Winship Cancer Institute’s Take on Caring For Patients with Cancer Over The Holidays


Christopher Zorn, clinic operations administrator of Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, discusses how Winship Cancer Institute fosters a safe, yet festive, holiday environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holidays can bring a level of uncertainty for those who care for patients with cancer. In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, these questions can become even more difficult to navigate.

Oncology Nursing News® spoke with Chris Zorn, administrator of clinic operations at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, about how his oncology clinic addresses pressing questions surrounding the holidays. Zorn discusses the dilemma of family visits for those who are immunosuppressed, decorating the clinic space, and how to address the questions of patients wanting to give gifts to their providers.

Oncology Nursing News®: How do your providers talk to their patients about wanting to see their families over the holidays?

Zorn: If there is one thing we have learned during the pandemic, it's that flexibility and adaptability are key. Gathering around the holidays can be stressful during the best of times and for who that are going through a cancer journey and are potentially immunocompromised, that stress is heightened even more. Many families and individuals have had to delay family gatherings. For those who are in the middle of a cancer journey, self-compassion is very important.

We advise our patients to “do what you feel comfortable doing; you don't have to force yourself to do anything extra. It's OK to set appropriate boundaries.”

The pandemic has taught most of us how to use online platforms such as Zoom and, if a person can't be with friends and family in person, perhaps [they can] arrange a time where everyone can gather via Zoom and open presents together or continue holiday traditions.

It's also important that a patient pick a trusted person or family member that can act as a “pseudo PR person,” and really be a point of contact to provide updates and to set appropriate limits. One thing that we have to [recognize] is that this holiday will be different. And, it's OK to approach it that way.

Does your team ever decorate your clinic with festive ornaments or decorations?

Around the holiday period, we do tend to get into a little bit of a celebratory mood. Our goal is always to create a welcoming, warm, and supportive environment. This positive atmosphere grows on all individuals, and we like for staff to be involved [because] it helps boost morale across the entire board. For us to have a warm, approachable environment, it helps bring back positive memories. We do have a tree [and] a menorah that we place within our clinic. We also have our teams decorate their team room doors to allow them to show how creative they can be.

We approach this as a journey, and we walk shoulder to shoulder with our patients during this journey. Therefore, we take time to celebrate each and every moment [with them]—especially when we run into the holiday season.

Does your Human Resources team offer any guidance for holiday sweaters or work appropriate clothing during the holiday season?

We try to have a fun time and celebrate, but at the same time, we have to be cognizant of our patient population. We want to be very clear that each discipline has a designated color that they wear, as well as make sure that our ID badges are clearly at eye level so that the patients can identify and know which [specialist] they're seeing.

[However,] we do sprinkle a little bit of fun in there. We do a best holiday-themed socks [contest], or if someone wants to wear a headpiece—there are a lot of reindeer antlers around this time of year—[that] is always fun.

Given that we are still in this pandemic time, we wear masks and eye protection whenever we're patient facing. We have been creative this past year and taken pictures of our best holiday gear. Then, we do an online voting for our [different] teams. This is something that we can do online [since] we can’t unfortunately gather as we used to in person.

Do patients ever want to give their providers holiday presents? If so, how do you address that as an institution?

That's an excellent question. I don't think we can put a put a price on the deep personal connection that a patient has with their entire care team. Oftentimes, especially if a patient is far from their family, or doesn't have family, their care team becomes part of that family. Certainly, we are very grateful for around the holidays. Typically, we receive handwritten notes, pictures with family, notes, etc.

We also have our Spiritual Health team in conjunction with our Patient Relations team. They have a tree that we put outside of our infusion center, where people can write notes [that hang from it]. Whether it be words of affirmation, a celebration of someone who is going through treatment, or a memory of someone, this basic tree turns into this wonderful, beautiful tree that is full of wonderful notes and acknowledgments for the care team and individuals who are going through their journey.

Of course, if patients are interested in making a monetary donation, we have a wonderful development team that we placed them in contact with that. If someone would like to make a donation in honor of a loved one, we can address [that as well].

That tree sounds beautiful.

Oh, it's a wonderful sight to see. By the first week, it really starts to become something and it's a wonderful addition to our clinic. It’s nice when you're leaving at the end of the day to stop and just read some of the words that patients and staff have placed on them.

There’s one [message] that always makes me makes me smile. It says, “God only gives you enough that you can handle and, well, my God must have a pretty high impression of me because he’s given me quite a bit.” It's a way that someone has approached [their experience] with humor, and it's a nice way to think about their experience.

Do you have any other advice regarding safe oncology care during the holiday season?

It is very important to be intentional about celebrating and making this a priority. [We need to make] sure that we listen to our teams and listen to what the patients are saying; we all walk this journey together. I don't think there's an individual in this building who has not been personally touched by cancer; we are a group of people taking care of people. We want to take the time to celebrate when we can and see the just the hard work that goes into doing this all throughout the year.

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