Two semesters short of graduation from nursing school, Dara Lewis began having severe headaches. In a sudden shift from student nurse to patient, Lewis worked her way through the referral process from primary care physician to neurologist to neurosurgeon. In October 2011 she found herself in an examination room at the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center with Dong H. Kim, MD, director of the Institute and professor and chair of the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School. Dr. Kim recommended immediate surgery for fenestration of an arachnoid cyst and placement of a ventriculoperitoneal shunt to continuously drain the fluid.
“I explained to him that I was in nursing school,” says Lewis, who was enrolled in the associate degree in nursing program at College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas. “Our curriculum was fast paced and very competitive, and I couldn’t just stop, so he worked around my schedule. I took my fall semester final in December 2011 and had surgery the next day.” She recovered during winter break and returned to nursing school in January 2012.
“I was leaning toward neonatal nursing or labor and delivery but then Dr. Kim found the arachnoid cyst and I had major brain surgery. He suggested that I talk with the administrative director of nursing, Nicole Harrison, who came in to meet me the day after my surgery. She gave me her card and asked me to contact her when I was close to graduation. When I graduated I couldn’t wait to be part of the team that had taken such good care of me.”
Lewis started at the Mischer Neuroscience Institute in July 2012, just after graduation. During her first year, she attended lectures and symposiums on stroke, traumatic brain injury, EKG monitoring, documentation and unit protocols.
“If you’re new to neuroscience, the Institute supports you with education through your first year. Neuroscience nursing is very detailed, very specific and very focused. We have to be patient and understand that stroke and brain injury patients may not be able to communicate with us easily. You work with one patient who’s had a stroke and you educate an entire family. In the process, we learn more about our discipline.”
Lewis often shares her story with patients who are frightened about upcoming brain surgery or a new diagnosis. “I really relate to these patients and want to be the person they can look to for support – someone who knows what it’s like to be in the hospital bed,” she says. “When they express their gratitude, it’s the best feeling in the world to know that I’ve touched their lives in a positive way.”
Lewis was promoted to charge nurse in January 2014, a year and a half after she started at the Institute. She is currently enrolled in the bachelor’s degree program at The University of Texas at Arlington, with support from the Memorial Hermann tuition enrollment program. “It’s wonderful to have an educational benefit that goes with your job,” she says. “After I finish my bachelor’s, I’d like to move to the Neuroscience ICU for more critical care experience and then continue in a master’s degree program. My long-term goal is to move up in management or education.
“I’m honored to work with a great team of neuroscience nurses and supportive physicians,” she adds. “Every day I live my personal story. I’m a nurse and I’m also still a patient – I had my fourth brain surgery in June. I know our doctors, our hospital and my co-workers will always take good care of me. I love them, and I trust them with my life.”