Bobbi Jo (BJ) Winship and her husband Jim love living on Camano Island with their fruit orchard, three horses, two dogs and a cat.
“I’m grateful for every day, for cloudy gray skies, rain and sunshine. I’m fortunate to be living in this beautiful place because I’m healthy. Because I’m cancer-free. And I’m cancer-free because I received great treatment at Virginia Mason,” BJ says.
Bobbi Jo and Jim make gifts to Virginia Mason Medical Center (VMMC) in recognition of the care they’ve received for the nearly three decades of primary care from Jillian Worth, MD, and David Cowan, MD, at the Bainbridge Island clinic.
“Jim and I appreciate the way VMMC providers listen. They give our questions and insight validity and combine those perspectives with their medical knowledge. It's a well-rounded approach to medicine,” she says.
Quality Primary Care Leads to Lifesaving Cancer Care
BJ was glad that she was already a VMMC patient when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. For the next eight months, she ferried back and forth from her home on Bainbridge Island to Seattle for treatment and care. Leading her cancer team was Andrew Jacobs, MD, who served as Virginia Mason’s Chief Medical Director until he retired.
“Dr. Jacobs was fabulous. I was so fortunate to have him as my oncologist. We hit it off right away, just like when I met Dr. Worth,” she says.
Throughout her treatment, BJ remembers the good – how kind many of the nurses were and how Dr. Jacobs encouraged her to speak up when she needed something. She also remembers the bad – pain under her arms where lymph nodes were removed and the side effects of chemotherapy. Most significant was her participation in a clinical trial.
“The trial was for improving treatment protocols, the order of medications and intensity, to figure out what worked best,” she says. “A big part of why I joined was because so many family members have died from breast cancer. I knew I could be passing the gene to my children and I wanted treatments to continue to get better for every generation.”
Reflecting on the Cancer Patient Experience
After treatment, BJ wasn’t quite done improving the cancer experience for other patients.
She wrote a letter to VMMC, sharing what went well and what could have been better.
Soon after, BJ got a call from a leader at the Virginia Mason Cancer Care Center asking if she wanted to be a patient representative on the committee redesigning the hospital’s cancer program. She said yes knowing she could help evolve the philosophy of care.
“In my professional life, I was a lawyer who specialized in contract law, so I was used to bringing two sides together to get the best outcome,” she says. “These two sides were patients and providers, and those relationships have to be as close as any.”
Unlike a professional negotiation, BJ wanted to inspire providers with a personal story.
“They expected me to get up and talk through bullet points. But instead, I just told my story – how I felt physically and emotionally, the hardships of treatment and the long road to recovery even after the cancer was gone,” she says. “I shared a lot about how some small adjustments in the clinic could improve the patient experience and how crucial it was to have a nurse you trusted.”
A Second Life-Changing Procedure
Following her cancer treatment, BJ spent nearly two decades free of any major health events. Then in 2020, she started experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations. What she was hoping was nothing, turned into a series of tests and being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which meant her heart wasn’t able to efficiently pump blood to the rest of the body.
“Because I couldn’t breathe, I wasn’t able to ride my horses. I wasn’t able to work in the orchard. It took away a lot of what I love about life,” she says. “The best option to fix it was with surgery.”
But once again, she credits the strong relationship with her provider, Dr. Christopher Fellows and his care team, with her confidence in their ability to restore her health.
“Having a heart procedure is terrifying, but I felt like Dr. Fellows had such a clear understanding of what was happening in my body and helped me understand what my options were, when it came time for surgery I was mostly looking forward to the opportunity to have my life back,” she said. “Everyone in cardiology was so caring and focused on restoring my health.”
Today, BJ and Jim still see Dr. Worth and Dr. Cowan for their primary care. And they continue to give with gratitude.
“We’ve received so much and we appreciate VMMC for their quality of care. We give to make sure that the same quality is accessible to all of their patients,” BJ says.