by Matthew N. Skoufalos

All her life, Colleen Berry has had a passion for art and aesthetics. A Florida native, Berry got her start in nursing at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. She spent a couple years in orthopedics and neurosurgery before returning to school to earn a nurse practitioner degree. As her medical career advanced, Berry always felt divided between two worlds; as though half of her still belonged in art school.

It wasn’t until Berry moved to Denver with her husband, Jackson, in 2013 to join the practice of Dr. Lisa Hunsicker at Revalla Plastic Surgery that she got the chance to use her artistic talents as part of of her nursing career — and to help patients recovering from life-altering illnesses.

Berry was drawn to Revalla by Hunsicker’s work with breast cancer patients, particularly a reconstructive procedure called direct-to-implant surgery that Berry said helps alleviate discomfort and decrease recovery time for women undergoing double mastectomy.

“[Doctors] used to do tissue expanders, and over a period of multiple surgeries [patients] would have their breasts reconstructed,” Berry said. “These women would come in every couple weeks and have saline injected into the tissue expanders, and then that would take a couple months, and then they would have another surgery to put the permanent implants in.”

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Instead of using the traditional approach of tissue expanders in such patients, Berry said, Hunsicker performs a single-stage procedure during which the mastectomy and implant surgeries are performed immediately after one another. Berry said the difference in outcomes for patients is “slim to none,” and that opinion is based on more than a decade of data as well as anecdotal responses.

“This works so well for women because they have to deal with the cancer diagnosis, then a mastectomy, and then they wake up with no reconstruction,” Berry said. “It takes a toll on their psyche.”

By comparison, she said, patients undergoing the direct-to-implant procedure come out of anesthesia with fully reconstructed breasts.

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“These patients take about six weeks out of their life and then they’re done,” she said. “It’s more of a speed bump in their life. They’re back to normal and back to life.”

The direct-to-implant procedure has also helped save the lives of a few traditional cosmetic surgery patients as well, Berry said. She related the story of one 26-year-old patient who came in seeking a breast augmentation and discovered a cancer diagnosis during a requisite, pre-surgery mammogram. The patient opted for the mastectomy and the direct-to-implant procedure, and “had the same recovery and same restrictions that someone did for a regular breast augmentation,” Berry said.

Aside from contributing to the health outcomes of women in need of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, Berry said, she loves working in her chosen specialty because of the visible emotional component to her work. It’s a sensitive issue to speak with people about making intimate changes to their bodies, she said; many of the women seen in the practice just want to look and feel the same as they did pre-operatively.

“There is a question about getting to choose your size,” Berry said. “We ask, ‘If you could wave your magic wand’,” and make changes, “and these end up looking very similar to your [original] breasts; as similar as they possibly can.

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“A lot of women want to hang onto that,” she said. “They don’t want to feel like they’ve had cancer; they don’t want to feel like they’ve had surgery. It gets you to [go from] having a cancer diagnosis to being totally cancer-free, and you get to keep all your body parts.”

Berry is also a key component of the road to recovery for those of Hunsicker’s patients who undergo a non-nipple-sparing mastectomy. Some will opt for a temporary tattoo, an adhesive prosthetic, or a 3D nipple tattoo, which Berry performs. The procedure takes three sessions to complete, “just to make sure we’ve got all of the detail involved,” Berry said. She brings her understanding of shading, lighting and color, all honed throughout a life of artistic pursuits, into the clinical setting.

“I was always involved in art classes, drawing, photography,” Berry said. “I actually wanted to be a tattoo artist. I ended up going back to school, learning how to use the tattoo machine, all the tattooing guns and colors. I had to do that entire advanced training and then I had to go back for more advanced training for nipple areolas themselves.

“I use my art background on top of my nursing background to really give these women the best outcome that’s possible,” she said. “I feel with the tattoos you’ve either got the art background and the natural talent for it or you don’t. It was really just a natural transition for me.”

Berry, who also provides permanent makeup for chemotherapy patients, said that the entire experience of working with cosmetics has challenged her fundamental understanding about aesthetics. Even after completing the 3D tattoos, she said, most patients tell her they don’t care if anyone sees the finished product; they just want to draw their own eyes away from their scars “and back to something that looks normal for them.”

“I feel like what I’ve learned the most is that people want what they look like,” she said. “They want to look how they did; not necessarily better, but how they used to look. I can tell them, ‘I’ve got all these ideas for you,’ and they show me a picture and say, ‘This is what I want to look like.’ Everyone’s beauty is reflected to them differently.”

“I’ve always thought about beauty and appearance as very personal,” Berry said. “This, to them, is the finishing touch. This is the high-five, ‘My cancer is over, and I’m back to normal [moment],’ ” she said.

Berry still pursues her own artistic passions on the weekends; she enjoys acrylic painting and charcoal drawings, and says she’s “still exploring Denver” with her husband and their two rescue dogs, Walt and Babs.

“Nurses should know that there’s so much out there,” she said. “If you feel like you’ve got something to offer, you should really pursue it. It took me this long to figure out that I could mesh my love of art and aesthetics and things with my love of nursing.

“I’m very lucky to have discovered this at this point in my life,” Berry added.

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