Family history of cancer is the motivation for mammographer's compassionate care

Valerie Newkirk says the death of her father is part of the reason she's dedicated to helping cancer patients. (Photo credit: Haywood Regional Medical Center)

News 13's Person of the Week, Valerie Newkirk, said her father's death is part of the motivation for her career in health care.

Newkirk, the staff mammographer at Haywood Regional Breast Center, has been recognized for handling patients with extra care.

"It's been a wonderful career," said Newkirk, who once dreamed of finding a cure for cancer. Instead she found a niche that's just as important in the imaging department.

"Now, I'm diagnosing cancer and saving lives," she explained.

Newkirk gives hope to patients like Pat Herron, of Maggie Valley, who has breast cancer.

"When you walk into this area, you feel happiness. You don't feel sad, you don't feel dark, you don't feel sick," Herron told Newkirk.

"While she's working, she's calming you down," the patient said. "She's talking about her family."

"The new patients, sometimes they're very nervous," Newkirk said of her approach. "When I get them in here, they're like a cat on a hot tin roof. I'll say, 'Take a deep breath, blow it all out. Now shake your arms and say, 'This is the best thing I've done for myself all day!'"

Newkirk stays strong for her patients, most of them unaware of the family history that motivates her.

"My father died from osteosarcoma, that's bone cancer, when he was 21 years old," she said. "I have always wanted to be, I guess, a legacy to him."

Newkirk's dad died just before she was born, and his death is what inspired her career in the medical industry.

"It's important for his memory to live on," she said.

Newkirk's calming influence on patients earned her a Mercy Award from LifePoint Health. The honor is given to one employee in each of its healthcare facilities. Newkirk was singled out for her balance of competence and caring.

She's also active in Special Olympics and other cancer-related causes.

Newkirk's a positive force for patients and refuses to allow anything to affect her job. Lately, that's been more difficult than ever.

"My daughter has the same type of bone cancer that my father had," she said. "Fortunately, technology has really progressed."

Sometimes, work is her escape.

"With my patients, it just all goes away," she said, driven by a keen understanding of how cancer impacts families.