By Matt Skoufalos

Medical surgical nurse Sally Brown got her start in the field as a teen, working as an aide at the Beacon Light nursing home in Marne, Michigan. Although she later held office and factory jobs, a love of caring for those in need returned her to Beacon Light as an adult. When her supervisor there inspired her to pursue her associate’s degree, Brown attended Grand Rapids Community College en route to becoming an RN. She had married and welcomed her first daughter, Tricia, by then, and ended up having her second, Kelly, while still in school.

“It was an eye-opener, but it was enjoyable,” Brown said. “My first chemistry [class] was [in] college; my first biology [class] was anatomy. I had some very good teachers and some interesting courses. I had lots of support from family and friends. That’s what got me through those years.”

Brown graduated in 1992. After a year at a Muskegon hospital, she caught on with the Zeeland Community Hospital in Zeeland, Michigan, now Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, where she has worked since 1993. Just as more education changed her outlook on the profession, so did milestone technologies like computerized charting and strategic deployments such as the RN-LPM teams in which Brown and her coworkers were typically arranged. What has neither changed nor diminished in her time in the field is Brown’s love of being a med/surg nurse in a community hospital.

“There’s so much patient care and patient interaction involved,” she said. “You get the full gamut, from pediatrics to surgery. It’s not like the big hospitals where you work a cardiac floor, a neuro floor, and ortho floor. That’s always kept me interested.”

Just as in her first assignment, Brown has been encouraged to continue her education throughout her tenure at Spectrum Health. Five years ago, she began working on her BSN as part of an institutional initiative to drive better health outcomes for patients. Although she has enjoyed school and improving her professional skillset, the process has been fraught with personal challenges.

In 2012, the year she started her BSN track, Brown’s husband, Greg, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Their daughter, Kelly, who herself had survived a bout of childhood cancer, came home from her residency in Boston, Massachusetts to help her mother acclimate to the online coursework. Meanwhile, Greg underwent two failed stem-cell treatments, and four years later, Sally Brown was diagnosed with triple-negative, stage 3, grade 3 breast cancer. She said the experiences shifted the intimacy of her understanding about just how much a diagnosis like cancer changes everything in a patient’s life.

“I think about it all the time, especially when you take care of patients, because you know what it’s like to be on the other side,” Brown said. “I think I understand the worry behind it all. A lot of times you see the patient when they get the biopsy, the diagnosis, the mastectomy, but you don’t realize what happens after that.”

For Brown, the solution was to keep going ahead – with her schooling, with her treatments, and with her resolve to set an example of perseverance for her children. She regards the challenges she’s been dealt “as just that: challenges.”

“You do what you have to do and get through it,” Brown said. “I always say that cancer wasn’t my choice, but my choice was to get the bachelor’s degree, and I just didn’t stop, I went through treatment. It helped me to have something else to focus on.”

Nursing has also offered Brown career flexibility that allowed her to incorporate family obligations and continuing education, but she felt like she was in especially the right profession during her battle with cancer. Along the way, she credits American Sentinel University with being “wonderful to work with” throughout the course of her diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Whether being granted flexibility with the timelines for her assignments, feeling a wellspring of support from her professors, or relying on a network of resources, Brown said the experience helped motivate her to get healthy and get her degree.

“They wanted me to succeed,” Brown said. “I can’t tell you how much support I have – my employer, my coworkers, school, friends, family. They’re what gets you through it.”

Even with all the support she could ever have asked for, the process wasn’t easy. During her six months of chemotherapy, Brown had extreme radiation burns that required frequent adjustments to her dosage. She underwent a left radical mastectomy, the removal of 21 lymph nodes, and another seven five-day weeks of radiation therapy before finally returning to work July 3. Her husband “has hit an even-keeled health,” she said, and she feels “wonderful” to return to her job.

Nonetheless, Brown said she doesn’t feel particularly special or different from any other cancer patient – just very well cared for.

“I think people would be amazed at what they can do when they are faced with these kinds of challenges. I just did what I had to do, and had the support of a lot of wonderful people,” she said.

“You just have to live your life and keep moving forward,” she added. “The cancer’s the one that comes out on top if you give up and curl up and do nothing.”

Things in her household are starting to settle into normalcy. Kelly Brown is working in the cardiothoracic surgical department at Yale University Hospital; her sister, Tricia Stokes, is an adjunct professor of education at Vermont University; like her mom, Tricia is married with a daughter while she puts herself through a Ph.D. program. Thinking of those things helped Sally Brown get through her illness and her degree program at the same time.

“You want your children to be proud of you,” she said. “I told them they could be whatever they wanted to be and do whatever they wanted to do; they just had to work hard.”

Brown is planning one more destination that she hopes will be the final stop in her cancer journey: reconstructive surgery and a right-breast mastectomy in November 2017. No outcome is guaranteed, but she knows that with the love of her family and friends, the support of her employer, and the opportunity to continue working as she recovers, her individual resolve will spur her forward.

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