Charlie’s Story: How His Nurse Navigator Helped Him Regain His Voice

Charlie Watson is a man who loves to talk, to laugh, to joke.

“My hobbies are cooking, eating, singing, and running my mouth,” the 67-year-old Vandalia father of two quipped. Nothing could have prepared him for the day when all those joys would be stolen from him – or when he would lose his voice to tongue cancer.

Months after undergoing a surgical resection of the tongue that required a tracheostomy, Watson still speaks haltingly. But he has found his voice again, thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of Jenny Niekamp, BSN, RN, his Premier Health oncology nurse navigator.

At their first meeting, Niekamp explained that in her role as nurse navigator she guides patients on their journey through cancer. She connects them with resources and provides education about diagnoses and treatment.

True to her word, Niekamp has been by Watson’s side ever since, through the surgery and the months of radiation and therapy that followed. One of the toughest challenges for the gregarious Watson has been the ability to communicate.

His wife, Donna, agreed. "He wants to be able to talk and joke and do all of the things he did before, but it's not there yet," she said.

A simple communication board called a Boogie Board provided the breakthrough that the couple needed. Niekamp will never forget the way Watson’s eyes lit up when she brought him the self-erasing board to make it easier for him and Donna to talk to each other.

“The communication board gave Charlie that autonomy piece that was taken away from him," Niekamp said. Before the Boogie Board, Watson lugged around a white board with magic markers. With the new device, he simply writes a message with a stylus, then pushes a button to erase it.

“Patients have complex medical needs, and without an easy way to express them, they become frustrated,” Niekamp said.

"After surgery, it was really hard to communicate with Charlie,” Donna said. “Since he has the Boogie Board, he has gotten better at socializing."

Watson’s enthusiasm inspired his social worker, Jennifer Masny-Bushman, MSW-LISW-S, with an idea: Why not provide Boogie Boards for other patients? She and Niekamp applied for funding from the Good Samaritan Foundation-Dayton, and through the foundation’s oncology fund, Niekamp was able to purchase nine Jot Boogie Board tablets and one Blackboard writing tablet to better assist cancer patients.

“It’s amazing what one simple thing can add to a patient’s quality of life,” Masny-Bushman said.

Donna doesn’t know how they would have gotten through their ordeal without Niekamp. “Jenny would return calls immediately. When we didn't know what was going on, she guided us to the right places."

Niekamp and Masney-Bushman, along with Donna, tell Charlie’s story in detail, and the difference the Boogie Board has made on his quality of life.

The family’s ordeal started last summer, when Watson developed a sore under his tongue that wouldn’t heal. He could barely chew his food. Charlie suspected he had suffered a cut from a tortilla chip, but Donna insisted he see a doctor.

An ear, nose, and throat specialist ordered a biopsy, resulting in a devastating diagnosis: oral squamous cell carcinoma, or tongue cancer. Watson was so concerned about maintaining his quality of life that he considered not going through with the surgery. Donna said the Premier Health team patiently persuaded him to undergo treatment. "They were all so supportive all the way through. During the operation, the surgeon even came out and explained the next step of the surgery… it was very plain they were all working as a team."

Watson continues to face a challenging recovery, and he doesn’t know to what degree he will regain his ability to speak. But his loving and supportive family are thankful every day for his presence in their lives.

“We have two children, and he can do things with them and be there for them," Donna said. "We know he could have died from this, but he is still here.”


Contact Us

Call the Premier Health cancer hotline at (844) 316-HOPE(844) 316-4673 (4673), Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to connect with a Premier Health cancer navigator.