Barbara (“Barb”) Pemberton has a huge smile, an infectious laugh, and a great memory – she vividly remembers how scared she felt when she interviewed to be a phlebotomist in 2004.
As she entered the building for the first time, on her way to “stick” someone to demonstrate her skill at drawing blood, she met Nick Medley, Guest Services Representative. “He calmed me down,” she remembers. “Nick said, ‘You’ll be fine, God has you.’”
Barb got the job, all those years ago. And then, in February 2022, she got another job at the Rockefeller Outpatient Pavilion — as an infusion nurse in Gynecology, having completed her nursing degree in August 2021.
“I tell Barb that our interview started about 15 years ago,” says Tara Sigidi, who is Barb’s manager and an Ambulatory Nurse Leader, overseeing the conventional infusion units. “And I finally got the chance to hire her as a nurse.”
Barb and Tara first met at a birthday party for a colleague in 2007, and quickly felt like old friends. Soon after, Barb moved into what was then known as the Experimental Treatment Center — it later became the Developmental Therapeutics Units (DTU) — as a Patient Care/Pharmacokinetic Tech, where Tara worked as a nurse.
“Barb was amazing,” says Tara. “She was consistently lauded as an exemplary employee and received amazing feedback from patients. Everybody always knew she’d be an incredible nurse.”
From Burgundy to Blue
While growing up in Astoria, Queens, Barb seemed to have an early affinity for nursing. Every time one of her friends had a cut or a scratch, Barb would bring them home and bandage them up.
After high school, she went to medical assistant school, and then accepted a job as a phlebotomist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she worked for three years before joining MSK.
But Barb wanted more. “As a tech, I was able to provide some care, but I wanted to provide overall care to the patients,” she says. “Working side by side with the incredible nurses in the DTU made me want to start that journey.”
In August 2021, Barb received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Long Island University Brooklyn. Soon after, she was offered the job as an infusion nurse, and put on a blue uniform in place of her previous burgundy.
It was a sweet victory after a long, difficult road.
“I had to work full time, per diem, and overnights to pay for school,” Barb remembers. “I went to school on my days off and did clinicals on the weekend — I never had a break.”“There were days when I wanted to quit,” she says. “But my colleagues supported me 1,000 percent. Tara, all the nurses, the techs, colleagues from Environmental Services and Facilities — they all told me: ’Keep going, you can do this.’”
Her husband and 12-year-old daughter have also been tremendous sources of strength and support for Barb. Her eyes well up with tears when she shares that her daughter told her how proud she is of her. “That really means a lot,” she says.
“Barb is the epitome of ‘pressing on,’” says Tara. “She has enormous integrity and accountability, she is compassionate, kind, and caring, shows great initiative, and is a tremendous team player. When I became a nurse leader, Barb was one of the first people I thought about.”
Finding a Place for Novice Nurses
For Tara, Barb’s hiring as a nurse was more than a personal triumph for Barb — it was the first step in introducing ambulatory nursing to novice nurses.
“Infusion is a specialty and there has always been this belief across the nursing field that new nurses should go into the inpatient setting first to get that medicine/surgery foundation and that specialties were off limits,” explains Tara.
“But a new nurse can be successful in the infusion unit,” she says. “We can help them by providing extra support as needed, extending orientation, and giving novice nurses the best preceptors.”
Tara stresses that this is important for both the novice nurse and the team. “The best teams are diverse in every way, including educational backgrounds. Plus, novice nurses are coming right out of school and bringing fresh knowledge that enhances our team.”
Unlike Barb, Tara never considered nursing until college.
She attended New York University (NYU) with her best friend. Tara wasn’t certain what she wanted to major in, so she joined her friend in the nursing school.
“It was very tough,” she remembers. Her clinical lab instructor at NYU was Jean Ricci, a former Army nurse who worked at MSK and is now a Clinical Nurse IV. Jean was instrumental in helping Tara overcome her initial nervousness. “The first time I had to go into a patient’s room, I told Jean, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” Tara recalls. “And Jean, sympathetically but firmly, told me to go in there and care for my patient with a can-do attitude.”
Jean also spoke very highly of MSK, inspiring Tara in a major way.
After one year of working as a public health nurse in a high school, Tara got her foot in the door at MSK when she was offered a job in the Women’s Health Unit, after an interview with Nurse Leader Blanca Vasquez-Clarfield. In 2000, she became a Unit Practice Nurse in Gynecology Medicine and Surgery. Three years later, she decided to make another move into the Phase I/II Clinical Trials Infusion Unit.
“I knew I had found my place,” she says. “I was at the frontline of new treatments, seeing drugs become FDA-approved. It was thrilling.”
Tara points to a photo in her office of a gastric cancer patient who was told that she had six months to live. “She joined a basket trial in 2013 and is still alive and well, no evidence of disease, because of drugs we started in phase 1.”
When her nurse leader, Kristin Cawley, went on maternity leave, Tara covered for her. “I loved having my hand in operations, clinical practice, education, and building teams,” says Tara. “So, I went back for my master’s degree and decided to pursue a leadership track.”
In 2019, Tara was asked to serve as interim nurse leader for the infusion teams at Rockefeller Outpatient Pavilion, which eventually became a permanent position. “I am so glad I did it,” she says. “I love infusion with all my heart and have the most extraordinary team.”
Lending a Helping Hand
Tara recently celebrated her 25th anniversary at MSK. While Tara and Barb are at different points in their careers, they have an unbreakable bond and are both committed to helping their colleagues in the true spirit of “One MSK.”
“If I can help pull someone else up and pay it forward, I will,” says Tara. “I am ready to listen, guide, and share my experience. I will help anyone who wants to learn and build their career.”
Barb feels the same. Even as she settles into her new position, she is already looking ahead and planning eventually to get her master’s degree, envisioning the day when she serves as a mentor to other nurses. But for now, she’s still learning.
“I was a tech for so long, that it still feels weird to go up to a patient and say, ‘I’ll be your nurse today,’” says Barb. “Now, I’m able to assess the patient and provide their treatment, to do more for them like I always wanted. It’s amazing.”