Though Ida Proco officially retired last month after 46 years as a dietitian with Centra Health, she’s back at it in a position to serve patients and members of the community.
Proco started as a clinical dietitian at Virginia Baptist Hospital and said she’s had several good professional opportunities along the way, taking on new roles that’ve kept her motivated and challenged. She retired as manager of dietitians at all of Centra’s facilities, filling in wherever there was a need and thriving while taking roles in education and patient counseling.
Now, having taken a few weeks off to vacation and visit family, she’s back at it — this time, working a couple of days a week at the Alan B. Pearson Regional Cancer Center.
“Having the opportunity to specialize in one area — it’s another step in my journey,” she said in an interview.
Although she’s worked with cancer patients in the past, she said learning about treatments in depth and how nutrition fits into that equation is a significant change and means a whole new learning curve.
“I see it as an area where I can make an impact,” she said. “No, I’m not going to cure the patients, but I hopefully can provide them with some knowledge and information for them to be more comfortable, have a better quality of life.”
Timothy Schoonmaker, who has worked with Proco since he came to Lynchburg as Centra’s director of nutrition services five years ago, described clinical dietitians as people who might not be at the forefront of care but are key behind the scenes to ensuring someone’s nutrition is a supportive part of their treatment.
“Most of our journey is spent on leadership,” he said, including teaching and coaching front-line workers and hosting support groups and classes.
And just like treatment plans, that focus on nutrition is something tailored to each person’s health needs along with other life factors.
Diet and nutrition aren’t absolutes. Proco said no foods are perfect, moderation is key, “all foods can fit,” and she’s learned that speed and efficiency are important factors to consider when people plan to eat healthy.
“To me, it is so important to make sure that I am telling patients things that are practical,” she said.
As Proco started to consider retirement, the dietitian working at Pearson told her about a potential opening for someone to work a few hours there as its programming expands. Between the timing and Proco’s interest in cancer treatment, she said it was a perfect opportunity — and the shorter hours involved would fit well with a post-retirement lifestyle.
It’s continuing her involvement in a field where she’s not only worn several different hats in a medical care setting, she’s also served in advocacy roles and worked extensively among the community.
Schoonmaker recalled creating recipes and holding cooking demos with Proco that were based on the Pearson Center’s garden and what was growing there. Similarly, programs such as cooking classes for schoolkids in the area have proven rewarding for everyone involved.
“It gives us an opportunity to really showcase what we do,” he said.
Proco also hosted a locally aired cooking show on TV for about five years starting in the late 1990s — something she said was a challenging but fun teaching opportunity to reach a large audience. Through that, she said she hoped to show that good eating doesn’t have to be expensive or hard work, demonstrating how to modify recipes to make them healthier.
She also served in leadership roles for dietetic professional organizations on the state and national level.
Although they won’t be working as closely, Schoonmaker said Proco will still have a line of contact with him and the other dietitians at Centra, continuing to offer her seasoned perspective as trends and patient needs shift. He said he foresees them continuing community outreach and holding classes in the future.
Schoonmaker said it was plain from her retirement party that she’d maintained relationships across the organization, and her compassion and devotion will be a great fit for patients facing treatment challenges who can use her help.
Though it was hard to finalize the decision to retire, Proco said it’s comforting to know she’ll still be able to connect with the other managers and dietitians while cutting back a bit on her workload.
“When this is the life you’ve known … it’s a difficult decision to make,” she said, adding she’s enjoyed every moment of what she did.