Patient Navigation/Survivorship Program 

May 10, 2024 | 0 comments

Michael, a lifelong Ojai resident who had been unhoused for several years, knocked on the office door of OjaiCARES one evening after hours. Susan Kapadia opened the door a crack and asked what he needed.  “I have cancer,” he said. She invited him in to talk. What followed was a year of CARE as Michael’s prostate cancer progressed, and he required more attention, navigation, and advocacy support. “In his last six weeks of life, we were able to secure a hospice bed for him at the continuing care center, his first clean bed, hot showers, and steady meals in decades. OjaiCARES provided daily visits and spirited conversations for those six weeks. Michael is an example of the lengths we have taken to support the most vulnerable in our cancer community,” says Susan Kapadia, founder and Executive Director of OjaiCARES.

OjaiCARES could not have a better name. CARES is an acronym for Cancer Awareness Resources Education and Support, and this organization walks the talk. One of OWF’s first grants was given to this organization in 2017, and another in 2019. As of May 1st, the $15,000 recently awarded OWF grant has been used for 87 services to 35 new clients and their caregivers. Patient navigation and advocacy are at the heart of what they do.  “When newly diagnosed clients speak to a trained Navigator at OjaiCARES who has dealt with and survived cancer, we see a transformation occur. Their whole being is filled with relief. They leave that first meeting with hope and return to benefit from other vital services we offer,” says Susan. Some of this year’s OWF grant is also earmarked to provide transportation assistance. “This is a huge problem for our clients getting to and from Ojai to Ventura and Santa Barbara appointments. Not everyone has a robust group of friends and family that can provide rides to the myriad of doctor visits for months on end,” Susan points out.

Clients find their way to OjaiCARES in many ways. Some, like Michael, just walk in the door. This has become more complicated since the pandemic. They had to close the office six months into the pandemic. Susan works from home and meets with clients at her home or theirs or over tea or coffee somewhere in Ojai. All groups meet at the United Methodist Church on Church Rd, and their integrative therapists now work from their home studios or make house calls. “Covid changed how we and others continue to provide quality services. We would love to be back under one roof,” says Susan.

Most clients hear about OjaiCARES through word of mouth, Google, and doctors in Ojai, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. Says Susan, “We could not survive without collaborations with other nonprofits. Help of Ojai provides some of the services for our senior or unhoused clients under their mission as a nonprofit. The Director of Secure Beginnings facilitates our Cancer Support Groups; we share clients with the Cancer Resource Center in Ventura.”

Susan comes to this work from a deeply personal place. After a career in teaching, she and her family moved to Ojai so that she could pursue her passion for cooking. Five months after opening her restaurant, World Flavor Café, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her life changed forever. Her restaurant closed after one year, and she focused on the long road ahead. She found no services in Ojai like those in Santa Barbara, where she was treated. After her treatment, she began volunteering at the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Santa Barbara and was eventually hired to work as a patient navigator and to help with data management. She then completed a distance learning program through UCLA’s School of Public Health for Patient Advocacy. In 2013, OjaiCARES was incorporated with two volunteers and Susan offering patient advocacy and navigation. As funding has grown and volunteers have stepped up, many services have been added over the years. As with many nonprofits, OjaiCARES still operates with a combination of very few staff and many volunteers, many of whom have a personal connection to cancer.  Several local professionals offer free-of-charge services like massage therapy, reiki, yoga instruction, counseling, and more to Ojai CARES clients. The need is great, and volunteers are always needed.

Photo caption: Susan Kapadia, Executive Director, in her home office