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A Clinical Nurse Specialist Describes Her Role

Getting Real: Nursing Today
February 27, 2017
A Clinical Nurse Specialist Describes Her Role

Deborah Wright, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, is always ready to learn something new. After working in gynecology oncology in a clinical and research setting, she decided she wanted to become an advanced practice registered nurse so she could broaden her scope of practice, maximize her ability to impact patients and increase her research opportunities. Deborah now serves as an oncology clinical nurse specialist in the Phase I unit at the Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma, in Oklahoma City. Read on to learn more about her role as a clinical nurse specialist.

NN: What is it like being a clinical nurse specialist (CNS)? Is it different from what you imagined?

Deb: Being a CNS allows me to practice beyond the “provider role,” which is the main reason I chose to become a CNS over becoming a nurse practitioner. While I see patients in our clinic and infusion center as an oncology provider, I also spend a big part of my day mentoring and helping our infusion nurse team and our clinical research nurses to solve patient care problems. We work to develop interventions or plans of care within the confines of a complicated research protocol. Additionally, I work with the entire Phase I department in an administrative capacity to develop processes that improve the delivery of patient care that in turn produces good quality research.

NN: What is a typical day in the life of a clinical nurse specialist?

Deb: My day usually starts in the clinic. I see patients with any solid or hematologic cancer who are treating on a Phase I trial, including patients with brain tumors, colon cancer, ovarian cancers, even rare and unknown primary cancers. We start early to collect same-day safety labs, pharmacokinetics, safety monitoring, etc.

When I am finished with clinic, I round through infusion to check on patients who might have a question or need to discuss a lab value or an imaging result. I am a sub-investigator for our studies, so I sign a lot of paperwork, review eligibility criteria and review all follow-up CT Scans or MRIs. As part of my work, I also collaborate with the oncologists and radiologists to ensure we are performing accurate tumor response assessments.

NN: What is one thing that you learned early in your career that has affected you as a nurse?

Deb: Never hesitate to collaborate or ask for help or guidance when you are stuck and cannot critically think through a problem or an issue. Knowledge is gained through humility not pride.

NN: Who is your nurse mentor and why is it so important to identify a mentor to help guide you in your first few years as a nurse? 

Deb: Having a nurse mentor is so important because it allows the new nurse to have a touchstone, a sounding board and someone who can advise, listen and advocate for you. My most influential mentor is my current supervisor. She is the director of our clinical trials office and she hired me years ago when I was a clinic nurse and working in our gynecology/oncology clinic. She was instrumental in the completion of my advanced degree, because I was able to complete a large portion of my clinical time in oncology at the hospital and in the outpatient setting. She is my mentor and my dear friend. 

NN: What advice would you give to nursing students or aspiring clinical nurse specialists?  

Deb: Don’t get discouraged when you find yourself juggling your job, school and family or private life! Allow yourself some personal time to reflect and recharge. Finishing your nursing degree or earning an advanced nursing degree is very demanding, but you don’t have to always be at the top. 

NN: What was the most useful advice you received when beginning your career? 

Deb: I started my nursing career as a licensed practical nurse in 1999 and I was given advice that I still carry with me today. I was told to never stop learning, use every day as an opportunity to broaden my knowledge base, keep reading, keep informed and question everything.

To learn more about becoming a clinical nurse specialist, visit

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