Board-Certified Patient Advocate can help you navigate your healthcare

Apr 22, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

The worst day of Jonathan Sommers’ life changed the trajectory of his life. And now, he wants to help you with your worst days.

In 2012, Sommers was working in Hollywood, writing for TV and movies, with big names like NBC and DreamWorks on his resume. In less than one week, he went from no health issues that he knew of—except for a pesky kidney stone—to surgery for testicular cancer.

He was 28 years old.

“At that age, no one expects cancer—it’s impossible to imagine,” he says. “It changes your life—for better or for worse. I chose the former, and, in this work, I find meaning in a diagnosis that felt meaningless.”

Jonathan SommersSommers has developed a new career as an independent Board-Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA). When he relocated from Los Angeles to Denver, he brought his business, Tikkun Patient Advocates, with him. The name of the business can be traced to his days at Ezra Academy, a Jewish day school in Woodbridge, Conn.

“We learned that the world is fractured, and we have a responsibility to help it heal,” he says. “This is my effort to repair the world.”

Struggling with an enormous medical bill you think is wrong? Sommers can investigate for you. Need help finding a second opinion or even just getting an appointment? Sommers will make the calls for you. Have trouble remembering what the doctor said at your appointment? Sommers will come along and help you understand all your options so you can make the best medical decisions for your care.

“With everyone I work with, I always ask the question, ‘What are the barriers between you and the healthcare you feel that you deserve?’” he says. “I like to think of myself as the conduit between the two. Receiving a serious medical diagnosis is always terrifying for patients but what they may not realize is that they always have choices in the care they receive.”

Sommers does not flinch from terrified patients—perhaps because he has not forgotten his own terror 12 years ago.

Cancer at 28

He thought he had a kidney stone. His appointment with the urologist was just ending when Sommers thought to mention something else.

“I said, ‘I think I feel something, but I’m sure it’s nothing,” he recalls.

It was testicular cancer, a rare form of cancer most frequently diagnosed in men ages 20 to 34. Within 48 hours, Sommers made his way through four different hospitals before having the good fortune to meet Dr. Mark Litwin, Chair of the Department of Urology at UCLA Health. Sommers still remembers their conversation on that day.

“He said to me, ‘You have testicular cancer, and you will live. I know because I am a survivor, and I have dedicated my career to helping men with this diagnosis.’”

For Sommers, who had no family in Los Angeles, Dr. Litwin’s message served as a lifeline.

“He was saying you will not be doing this alone,” Sommers says. “That has framed the advocacy work I do and the support I give, always reminding people they are not alone.”

Six weeks after the initial surgery, Sommers underwent a second surgery. This one—to remove abdominal lymph nodes—was more invasive. That procedure led to multiple complications and additional hospitalizations—and, of course, more medical bills.

“My dad used to run a medical laboratory and my mom ran the billing department, so I was familiar with the basics of the medical system, but, by necessity, I had to learn a lot and quickly,” Sommers says. “I learned how to maneuver, navigate, and advocate within the medical and health insurance systems with the language that providers use but is so foreign to patients.”

With his personal experience and understanding of the healthcare system, Sommers began mentoring other young cancer patients, offering peer support to a group known as Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer (AYAs).

He also talked to the teens he was coaching in lacrosse and asked them how much they had learned in school about testicular cancer. The answer was “nothing,” so he worked with USC and UCLA to introduce a pilot program into the Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching teens about screening for this curable cancer.

In his advocacy work, Sommers was finding fulfillment. In his professional life—not so much.

“It made me think of the Mishnah where it says, ‘When I am for myself alone, what am I?’” he says. “I was watching people work so hard, and I had to ask, ‘What is the greater purpose of Hollywood?’”

Sommers pivoted, merging his passion for helping cancer patients with his experience creating content in writing and film. He became deeply involved with SWOG Cancer Research Network, the oldest and largest cooperative group of the National Cancer Institute, an organization that conducts taxpayer-funded cancer clinical trials, serving on their Patient Advocate, Adolescent Young Adult, and Digital Engagement Committees. He has recently been named as one of SWOG’s two Champions of Equity and Engagement in Research (ChEER). He has had articles published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

At the same time, he expanded his peer support work to include more than just cancer patients. He met Hana Reissner, an obstetrician and gynecologist, who was doing a fellowship at USC in Complex Family Planning. They eventually moved to Denver, where Reissner grew up and Sommers already had family, and were married in the summer of 2022.

Sommers Family

It was Reissner who suggested that Sommers turn the work he cared so passionately about into a career, becoming an independent Board-Certified Patient Advocate. Some people go back to school for formal training before taking the certification test. Sommers believed he had attended the school of real life. Without any additional training, he passed the test with flying colors.

He is still connected remotely with clients in California, and he has now expanded his professional network in Colorado, helping patients and caregivers alike, not just with cancer but also with any other illness.

What can he do for you or someone you know?

Sommers brings a wide range of skills to his work as a patient and research advocate. He emphasizes that he is not a medical professional, so he cannot offer clinical advice, but he can help his clients navigate their own care and solve issues as they arise.

He recounts a story of a client who had received a bill for $60,000 that seemed to make no sense. Sommers did an audit of the bill and discovered that the billing office had entered one wrong number for the patient’s insurance policy, triggering a cascade of errors resulting in bills for out-of-network costs.

With his deep knowledge of NCI Comprehensive Cancer Centers and his connection with SWOG, Sommers can also help patients who want to get second or even third opinions, including remote opinions. He also helps patients find clinical trials with the philosophy that a clinical trial should be considered frontline treatment, not a last-ditch effort.

Patients diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy might need multiple additional specialists. Sommers helps patients assemble an interdisciplinary care team and coordinate communication among different specialists to prevent what is known as “fragmented care” which can lead to increased hospital and emergency department use, unnecessary testing, and increased medical costs.

Sommers will attend medical appointments with a client to help the patient remember everything the doctor said so the patient can ultimately decide on the best decision for them in what can be a highly stressful situation. Sometimes, he can do something that should be simple but often is hard—get an appointment.

“You might call and be told the next appointment is in three months and that is so frustrating,” he says. “I will ask, ‘Do you want me to try to get that appointment for you,’ and more often than not, I can get it sooner.”

In his former life, a “win” for Sommers might have been a writing credit on a TV series. Now, a win for him occurs when a client comes in overwhelmed by fear and problems.

“Patients may feel alone, but it doesn’t mean they have to be alone because I can take these challenges off their shoulders,” he says. “I will say, ‘Would you like me to do these four things to help your situation?’ and they reply, ‘Wow, you can do that?’ and they walk away not just feeling more at ease but also seen.”

The biggest win for Sommers comes when he removes the hurdles that are preventing someone from getting the care they need.

“Hearing they are feeling better, that they have found a new normal, that their diagnosis is managed, and they are living a meaningful and fulfilling life, that is a win,” he says. “And that’s why I do this work.”