Q & A with Forge’s New Oncology Dietician Donna Vaughn


Forge is excited to now offer one-on-one nutrition guidance to our clients through Oncology Dietician Donna Vaughn. We had a quick question and answer session with her to help you get to know her.

Tell us about yourself!
I just celebrated turning 60 this September. It’s exciting to start a new decade! My husband George and I have been married for 38 years, and we have three children. Our oldest son and his wife live here in Birmingham while our daughter lives in NYC, and our youngest son lives in Atlanta. We have a sweet golden retriever named King.

Growing up on a farm in Mississippi, we grew or raised most of our food. My mother and grandmothers were all wonderful cooks. I fell in love with cooking at a young age – they were all very patient teachers! I struggled with my weight as a young child, which also sparked my interest in nutrition. I received my undergraduate degree in nutrition from Mississippi State University and did my internship at Ochsner in New Orleans. I worked as a dietitian until 2004. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 35 years old, and my husband and I decided it was best for me to stop working when I struggled to handle a full-time job and taking care of our children with my limited energy and pain. I’m so thankful for new medications and wonderful physicians and other healthcare professionals who have made such a difference in my treatment over the years.

I volunteer at Cornerstone Schools, work with my sister on Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes (Operation Christmas Child), assist our church with Backpacks for the Blackbelt and volunteer at the food bank. My happy place is at the beach, and I love to read, walk, bake and travel. My husband and I love to cook together and enjoy cooking for our friends and family on the weekends.

What sparked your interest in Oncology Nutrition?
I was looking for a job in Tuscaloosa shortly after becoming a dietitian, and DCH had just opened their cancer center. I started working as an oncology dietitian and was fortunate to work alongside physicians, nurses, radiation therapists and others who were eager to learn and share their knowledge. We all worked as a team, and I was blessed to be a part of it. Everyone wanted to do whatever we could to help patients dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

I think one thing I love about working with oncology patients is their appreciation for any help that you can give them. Sometimes it may just be getting a requested food when they’re in the hospital or tips on increasing calories and protein when their intake is inadequate to maintain their weight. Food is such an important tool to improve quality of life during cancer treatment and recovery!

When my husband and I moved to Birmingham, I joined Brookwood Medical Center and was excited to be able to continue working with inpatient and outpatient oncology patients. The hospital had a wonderful group of physicians and staff who appreciated the importance of nutrition during treatment, so it was a wonderful opportunity for me. Over the years, there has been so much more research done on diet and cancer prevention and treatment. I enjoy working with patients and their family members to help with concerns or problems with diet during and after treatment.

How do you think nutrition can help cancer survivors and their loved ones to thrive after a recent or past diagnosis?
Proper nutrition is such an important part of treatment and recovery for anyone who has had a cancer diagnosis. Some have very little trouble during treatment, but others have increased needs for nutrients, such as protein and calories to promote healing after surgery or treatment. There are others who struggle with weight gain after treatment – maybe due to the medications they were on or how the body handled changes after treatment. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important aspect of decreasing your risk for cancer recurrence so working with an oncology dietician will help you learn the tools to
improve health long-term.

What is it like for someone to work with an oncology dietitian?
Eating is more than just meeting our nutritional needs. It’s an important part of our culture and our social lives. So anytime someone has difficulty with eating, it affects other aspects of their lives, including our connections with family and friends. An oncology dietitian has a good understanding of all the aspects of nutrition and can help with any difficulties a patient may be having. Conversations often begin with talking about your eating habits, preferences and concerns you are having related to nutrition. We will make a plan for how you can use food and supplements to reach your goals, and we will check in periodically to see how things are going and make adjustments to what you are eating or how you are eating (such as time of day you eat your meals). Consider me your resource for all things diet!

What can individuals expect to see from your collaboration with Forge?
I’m looking forward to working with Forge clients and anyone who is involved in their care. Proper nutrition can be overwhelming during such a stressful time, and I want to be helpful in making a healthy diet easier in anyway possible. I will work toward helping clients find answers to any questions they may have. There is so much nutrition information on the internet and other sources (sometimes everyone seems to think they’re an expert!), so I will help with dispelling untruths, exaggerations or information that has not been backed up by research. I will always be honest if I don’t know, but I am very resourceful and enjoy searching for the answer to questions or finding the right person that can help. I can also help with adjusting recipes, finding foods or supplements that are best tolerated or just encouraging clients when they aren’t sure their diet is appropriate. If you are interested in working with me one-on-one to discuss your nutritional concerns and goals during or after treatment, reach out to Janet or Ana on the Forge team to learn more.

Janet Dees
[email protected]

Ana Emaldi
[email protected]