Former Smoker Leads the Pack of Nurses Promoting Cessation

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By Robin Davidson, Staff Writer


Mary Lou Heater, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC, is an advanced practice nurse who works for M. D. Anderson's Tobacco Treatment Program (TTP) and each day, she may provide counseling to 10 or more cancer patients struggling to break the hold of the tobacco addiction that may have caused their disease.

The TTP is an intensive tobacco cessation program, that is open to all patients, as well as M. D. Anderson employees and their dependents, free of charge. In some cases, family members of patients living in the same household may also be considered eligible for the program. With an outstanding 41-percent success rate, Mary Lou Heater wants more people to take advantage.

Patients like Mary Lou's no-nonsense approach. As a former smoker who's married to a former smoker, she knows just how hard it is to quit.

 "The Tobacco Treatment Program is a holistic approach to addiction therapy. I see patients every day who really want to quit. They need help," she says. "When they are first diagnosed, they are scared. Maybe they're going through chemotherapy treatments or maybe they are dealing with a secondary cancer. I have a real appreciation for our patients, their struggles and their resiliency."

A brief intervention may be all it takes to get people to come around to an idea. "I want nurses to learn the five A's: Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist and Arrange. Nurses see the most patients and have the most interaction with patients. They are far and away the best health care practitioners to intervene, and studies prove nursing interventions are effective. If one of our doctors or nurses has a patient interested in quitting, I will go directly to that patient."

The TTP involves three months of active treatment, but follow-up extends to 15 months to monitor status. As an advanced practice nurse in collaboration with the program's addiction psychiatrist, she both dispenses pharmacological therapy and provides the behavioral counseling that may make it possible for a patient to quit. Outpatient visits to the Behavioral Research Treatment Center may be ideal, but Heater's job often sends her directly to a patient's bedside. Those who need support know she's just a phone call away.

"Being with patients, you forget everything else. Since I've been in nursing, I've worked strictly with psychiatry and addictions. My work is very rewarding, but most importantly I love the patients. They are as amazing as the work we do here."

Visit the Tobacco Treatment Program to learn more about the no-cost cessation services provided, call 713-792-QUIT, or send an e-mail to


Smoking Cessation Resources

Guide to Quit Smoking (ACS)

How to Quit (CDC)

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