#TheMindBehind Barrow Patient Navigation and Outreach: Tammy Abbott-Thiel

Tammy Abott-Thiel had envisioned a career as an elementary school teacher—until a question from a college admissions committee changed her trajectory.

While considering Tammy for the second part of the elementary education program at the University of Northern Colorado, the committee asked how she would handle a student being teased because of their race.

Tammy proposed organizing a multicultural day so that students could learn about and celebrate each other’s differences.

“The committee thought that I should have punished the people who were being mean,” she recalled. “I felt that would just create backlash and not really address the dynamic that was going on. Looking back, I apparently had social work tendencies even then.”

Instead of reapplying for the remainder of the elementary education program, Tammy explored the possibilities of a sociology degree.

She launched her social work career in a skilled nursing facility. About 25 years later, she has landed at the helm of patient navigation and outreach at Barrow Neurological Institute.

“It wasn’t the path I envisioned when I started college,” she said, “but it’s worked out very well.”

Journeying Alongside Patients, Families in Neuro-Rehabilitation

Tammy joined the staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in 2007 as a social worker for Children’s Rehabilitative Services. She had moved to Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after earning her Master of Social Work degree from Colorado State University.

Tammy has worked at St. Joseph’s in some capacity ever since. She became a full-time employee of Barrow Neurological Institute in 2014, when she accepted a care manager position on the neuro-rehabilitation unit. In this role, she helped to coordinate the care, and eventually the discharge of, patients on the unit. Her efforts ensured patients had access to anything they might need after leaving the hospital, including equipment, outpatient therapies, and transportation.

In 2016, she transitioned to program manager for the Spinal Cord Injury Program within the Neuro-Rehabilitation Center. This involved working with physicians to develop the system of care for patients hospitalized with spinal cord injuries.

My hope for our department is that we have Dr. Michael Lawton-level of excellence outside of the surgical suite, so that we continue that level of excellence and commitment to our patients, but it’s in the recognition of what they may be dealing with on the day-to-day basis.

Tammy Abbott-Thiel, Manager, Barrow Patient Navigation and Outreach

Tammy also assisted with coordinating and providing social work services for the Spinal Cord Injury Wellness Clinic, an outpatient clinic where patients can receive assessments and recommendations from multiple specialists in a single visit.

Additionally, Tammy monitored performance outcome indicators and led program improvement. She is proud to have strengthened relationships between the Institute and community partners—namely the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. She also helped to implement cognitive evaluations by speech therapists for all traumatic spinal cord injury patients admitted to the hospital.

“If they’ve had a traumatic hit hard enough to cause an injury to the spinal cord, there is likely also potential for brain involvement,” she said. “The Spinal Cord Injury Association anecdotally reported that they often have individuals, down the line, talk about cognitive impairment that they are living with that was never caught.”

In 2018, Tammy assumed the role of supervisor for the inpatient therapy team but continued to share coordination responsibilities for the Spinal Cord Injury Program.

One of the aspects of working in neuro-rehabilitation that Tammy enjoyed the most was the team dynamic. She also found it rewarding to walk alongside patients and families during difficult times in their lives.

“To be able to offer them things that might provide a spark of hope, to normalize what they’re going through, to provide them with resources and skills that might help them better come out of it OK—I think that’s just amazing,” she said. “There’s nothing better than having that person come back to the unit six months or a year later, and they’re doing well and thriving.”

Furthering Innovation in Patient Navigation, Outreach

In the midst of the rigorous CARF reaccreditation process, Tammy learned about the open leadership position on the outreach team from her managers. She was told she would be a great fit.

“It hadn’t even been on my radar that I might exit the neuro-rehabilitation team,” Tammy said.

As she reimagined her career path at Barrow, Tammy felt nervous about changing course. But she grew excited thinking about how she could build upon the outreach program’s strong foundation.

“This is an amazing team,” she said. “I think what they provide makes us very different from a standard neurology clinic. We have wellness and exercise programming to couple with your physician’s treatment plan. When there are gaps in your life, we have social workers who can help address them.”

It’s this dedication to whole-person care that has made Tammy proud to work at Barrow for the past eight years. She also embraces the Institute’s commitment to innovation and aims to further instill that culture in the outreach program.

Drawing on her experience in program development, Tammy is encouraging the outreach team to let their data drive new programming.

“We can allow that data to speak to us and tell us what makes the most sense,” she said. “For example, when we provide information and support to people living with memory impairment and their care partners, are we doing it in a way that’s meaningful and easy for them to access?”

She is also guiding her team in thinking outside of the box.

“It’s really helping the team to not only do what we’ve always done but to look at what hasn’t been done,” she said. “My hope for our department is that we have Dr. Michael Lawton-level of excellence outside of the surgical suite, so that we continue that level of excellence and commitment to our patients, but it’s in the recognition of what they may be dealing with on the day-to-day basis.”

Outside of work, Tammy enjoys running, hiking, reading “a little bit of everything,” and spending time with her family—including her Chihuahua, Quetzie.