That's understandable, she knows. They are urgently searching for critical information that may save a life — perhaps their own. Sometimes what they really want is someone to listen to their woes — even if it's a person at the end of the line whom they have never met before.
"At times I feel I can help a patient best simply by listening," says Iniguez, who takes calls at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center's clinical trials referral service. Every day she talks to patients, doctors and family members looking for information about the more than 200 leading-edge clinical trials available at the center.
Most callers are searching for hope in the fight against colon, breast, lung, ovary or prostate cancers. "It can be frustrating and emotionally wrenching to speak with desperate callers. They don't want to hang up," says Iniguez, who has been the voice of the referral service since 2000.
There was no centralized location for patients to call for up-to-date information about ongoing cancer studies before Iniguez came, so she helped establish the referral service. Before coming to UCLA, she worked at the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service in Los Angeles and had earned a degree in sociology from UCLA. But even with that background, Iniguez found there was much more to learn about clinical trials.
A clinical trial is a study conducted with cancer patients, usually to evaluate a new treatment. "When patients call, I first attempt to evaluate their treatment history to make sure they qualify for a clinical trial before referring them to a study coordinator," Iniguez says. "Usually I call a patient within four to six weeks to follow up on their clinical trial referral process."
Recently, Iniguez received a call from a woman whose mother, a Kaiser Permanente patient, had undergone four separate chemotherapy regimens for advanced colorectal cancer.
"The daughter heard of a study with [Associate Clinical Professor] J. Randolph Hecht," Iniguez said. "At that time, the study was within two weeks of closing. Only a couple of slots were left."
In order to obtain authorization to allow her mother to come to UCLA, the woman set up a review hearing with Kaiser. "I suggested she set up an appointment with Dr. Hecht as soon as possible to save time, rather than wait until after the review hearing," Iniguez explains. "I referred her to the new-patient liaison, who continued to work with her throughout the process."
The daughter has since contacted Iniguez to thank her for her help. When news of a cancer breakthrough hits, such as when the leukemia pill Gleevec was approved, Iniguez's typical 15 calls a day grows exponentially.
And that's fine with her. "My greatest satisfaction is when I am able to instill hope in callers that have been previously told there is nothing more that can be done for their condition."
The toll-free number for Jonsson Center Clinical Trials is 1-888-798-0719