Published October 18, 2005
Volume 13, Number 10

Mary Riley Brings a Passion for Healing, Communication to the ValleyCare Health Library

By Jay Hipps

Nurses are frequently the unsung heroes of the medical world. While the latest advances in medical technology are trumpeted in headlines, the simple human abilities of communication and caring are sometimes overlooked despite the key roles they play in healing. Those traits are a passion of Mary Riley, a registered nurse with an additional certification in oncology who now serves as the head of the ValleyCare Health Library and Ryan Comer Cancer Resource Center.

Mary RileyAt first glance, a library may not sound like a likely location for the talents of a skilled nurse to be put to use. But when the opportunity arose in 2002, Riley—who had already logged seven years with ValleyCare—quickly determined that it was an ideal place for her.

“Janie Eddleman, the nurse who started the library, decided to retire and at the time I was working at another job in the hospital,” Riley says. “When the opportunity opened up, I wasn’t sure I would like it, so I came over and talked to her and decided that it felt like home, that I could do this. I took the job and in a very short time, I knew this was the right spot for me because I was able to spend time with a person one-on-one and really listen. I had the time to really hear what they needed to know and help them.”

Riley learned the value of those skills early in her nursing career and continues to be reminded of their worth. “Really listening to patients has been important as a nurse through all the different jobs I had in the hospital, along with realizing that people can feel lost or frightened or just completely overwhelmed,” she says.

While technological advancements in medicine such as minimally-invasive surgery have cut down on the length of hospital stays and provided a number of other benefits, she notes that it has taken away from the some of the nurse’s other roles.

“Medicine has gotten very high tech and it takes more time to chart and document, and that takes time away from the patients. You can do the very best you can but you know sometimes that you didn’t get the opportunity to even get their question out of them.

“Or sometimes when patients are in the hospital, they are in shock and disbelief. When the diagnosis is cancer, they’re not at a teachable moment. The patient really needs to sit with it for a while to come to terms with it and rarely do we have that time anymore in the hospital because their length of stay is so short, and that really cuts down on the nurses’ time to do the teaching that we all wanted to do.”

While Riley’s current position is a great fit for her skills, it has taken her a while to reach this point. The daughter of an operating room nurse who spent over three decades in the field, Riley first attended nursing school as a newlywed. After becoming pregnant in her first year there, she postponed her schooling, eventually having four children and taking a nine year break from college. Although she had originally planned on becoming a pediatrics nurse, she changed her mind—“I had done pediatrics at home and I decided it wasn’t for me,” she laughs—and studied medical/surgical nursing instead. After a brief stint at Pleasanton Urgent Care, she joined ValleyCare in 1995.

Now that she’s found her niche at the library, her enthusiasm for her calling is growing even larger. “It is really a passion of mine that patients have an opportunity to be listened to and heard and that they really understand,” she says. “With the Internet, people can get a lot of information but it’s not always correct. Sometimes, because it’s a whole new language with medicine, they can’t really break the information down into ‘What does that mean to me?’”

In addition to the mental and emotional benefits of this communication, Riley also points to studies which have determined that this knowledge plays an important role in the physical well-being of patients.

“All the evidence points to the finding that if a patient is prepared, their outcomes are better. They can actually identify risk factors as they happen—‘Oh, I have a pain in my leg, that’s abnormal. I’d better tell the nurse or report that to the doctor.’ They’re a little more apt to be proactive in their care. They’re very savvy consumers now and it helps. They’re more prepared and my passion is that they’re properly prepared, that they have good resources.”

Riley is firm in her belief that knowledge permits patients to make the decisions that are best for them. “Years before, what the doctor said we did because he was the one in charge. And it’s all turned around now—patients really know their bodies very well and can really make a better decision if they can understand all the elements and all the risks and benefits involved. If they understand the risks and the benefits, then they can ask proper questions. ‘Is this correct for me?’ Or when they go into the doctor they can say, ‘Can you explain to me—is there anything that would make this risk higher?’”

At the ValleyCare Health Library, she has a tremendous variety of information sources on hand to educate and enlighten. “We have unique tools here—we’ve had people say, ‘I’ve been to the Mayo Clinic and I haven’t seen anything this complete.’ We have everything from children’s books to physician’s textbooks and we have different ways of learning—we have audio, we have CD-ROMs, we have models so you can look at it and hold it in your hand and see it. There are different ways that people can get all the concepts that they need to get the picture in their mind about what’s happening in their bodies.”

She has continued the growth of the library’s youth collection, another of her priorities. “Our children are faced with a number of challenges and if they’re not empowered with that information, they can really make some bad decisions. It’s a passion of mine to support that so they can make healthy choices in foods, exercise, relationships, and other areas of their lives.” Again, she notes that the information is not limited to books. “We have great tools like drunk driving goggles that actually show how you lose your depth perception.”

Above all, Riley brings a high level of commitment to her job, recognizing the important role that she can play through her position with ValleyCare. She also expresses gratitude for the support the library receives through both individual donors and the sponsors of the annual Christmas Tree Lane event, the fundraiser that is primarily responsible for the library’s ability to provide its free services to the public.

“I love this community,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard because you know so many people and when you see health issues impacting their lives, you can’t help but want to make sure that you have the most current and best information available. You can’t help but take it personally. You want it to be the best because sometimes it’s somebody you know and sometimes it’s making a new friend.”


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