Linda Van der Merwe said she knew when she walked through the doors at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital her future in the fight against cancer would bring her south to Albany from Chicago. (Special photo)
ALBANY — Linda Van der Merwe admits there are times that the stress of her job as vice president of oncology services at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s Cancer Center can lean toward overwhelming. When that happens, she has a simple enough sure-fire remedy.
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“When I have one of those moments where things start to get to me, I simply go downstairs to the waiting room at the Cancer Center,” Van der Merwe said. “That’s a stark reminder that what we’re doing matters. I refocus on the simple fact that what’s important are those patients we’re treating.”
A Chicago native who was lured South nine years ago to a place she’d never heard of but quickly found to her liking, Van der Merwe works in the seventh-floor administrative offices of the Cancer Center to make sure the front-line oncologists in the center have the latest equipment and data available to aid in their battle against cancer. And while her tasks may not be as dramatic as those of the physicians and staff who deal directly with cancer patients, they are no less valuable to the team effort at the center.
“Unfortunately, the reality of health care today is that we have to find ways to be effective and cost-efficient,” Van der Merwe said. “Quality of care is our primary concern, but we have to talk about dollars, too. Quality has always been here, but now there are reporting guidelines that can be cumbersome and burdensome. I’m not saying they’re bad, but there is a period of tough adjustment that we’re going through.
“No one says this is not challenging for everyone involved. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling himself. That’s why one of my primary objectives is to make sure we start to think differently.”
Van der Merwe says her knack for “thinking things through” is what led her toward administration as a career.
“My biggest aspiration in life was to just be a supervisor,” she said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve ended up in places that have given me that opportunity. When I got my master’s degree in Health Care Administration (from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.), I knew I was entering a stressful field. But I quickly discovered that I like it.”
When a medical headhunter called Van der Merwe and told her about a position that was perfect for her, the headhunter intentionally hesitated to tell her where the opening was.
“I noticed that (the headhunter) kept dancing around where the job opening was, so I finally said, ‘Look, just tell me where the job is,’” she laughs. “When he said ‘Albany,’ I said, ‘I’ve already got plenty of snow. Why would I want to go to a place that gets as much or more?’ Then he said, ‘No, not Albany, New York, I mean Albany, Georgia.’ My next response was ‘where’s that?’”
Van der Merwe relented to come to Georgia for a look, and it didn’t take her long to make what would be a life-altering decision.
“I walked through the door (at Phoebe), and I knew,” she said. “I called my husband and said, ‘I’ve found where we need to be.’ It’s been nine years in January, and I’ve never regretted the decision.”
Van der Merwe’s duties as oncology services VP include collecting data and finding the most efficient way to incorporate the data into the services provided at the Cancer Center. The information is vital to creating a strategic plan for the center as it moves to incorporate a more streamlined, multidiscipline approach to cancer treatment.
“My philosophy is not to take a deep dive all at once,” she said. “You have to remember that, no matter how badly you might want to, you can’t do everything right now. I believe in a more methodical approach. As you look at the continuum of care, you can’t take on the multitude of challenges without a well-thought-out approach.
“We have a good team in place here, a good administrative team that works well with the staff. That’s vital as we take on the domino effect that new health care laws create. It’s sometimes more difficult for the more experienced doctors who have been practicing medicine for quite some time. We listen to their concerns, but at the end of the day, rules are rules.”
Van der Merwe says advancements in chemotherapy and radiation technology are among the improvements that have greatly enhanced cancer treatment nationally and in Southwest Georgia.
“You look at the services provided by the Phoebe Cancer Center; they’re pretty top-of-the-line,” she said. “That’s what’s exciting about this job, finding the right approach to give our patients the best care possible. I’ve been here nine years, and I still feel the same passion for my job as I did when I first came here. I still feel like I have a job to do here; I still feel like I have something to offer this community. The day that I stop feeling that way, I’ll look for something new to do.”