by: Matt Skoufalos
After two years at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, Senior Staff Operating Room Nurse Ashley Brown still gets questions about why she would choose to relocate from sunny Marin County, Calif., to the Big Apple (particularly in winter).
Brown’s career began in New Orleans, where she pursued a degree in graphic design. When Hurricane Katrina leveled the city during her junior year of college, Brown was displaced, and returned home to California. From there, an internship at an urgent care clinic moved her to shift her focus to nursing. When she was accepted at New York University, Brown said she “immediately jumped in.”
“This was going to be my way to see New York and follow this new career that I’m excited about,” she said. “I’ve been here five years now, between school and my first job and this job. I don’t have any plans to leave.”
From working in a private practice that focused on dermatology and cosmetic cancer surgeries to the neurosurgical unit at NYU-Langone, Brown said that the change in assignments has been rewarding as well as challenging.
“I did my internship on a step-down unit and wanted that job,” she said. “When I got to do a quick rotation around the OR a few times in the beginning of my orientation, I remember being in this brain tumor removal case, [and] everything about the surgery was exciting and thrilling to me.”
Brown said that neurosurgery is so compelling to her because she finds fascinating the adaptive qualities of brains and bodies to deal with trauma and pain. Equally intriguing, she said, is the variety of skill sets required to work on the brain as opposed to the spine: brain tissue requires atomically precise movements and an incredibly delicate touch, whereas spinal surgeries often can have a jarring impact related to cutting into bone.
But the outcomes have never left her mind of the “two different worlds” in which a patient lives before and after the surgeries.
“These poor patients are in so much pain,” Brown said, and sometimes removing a piece of tissue can make “a whole new person.”
Consistent from procedure to procedure, whatever the specialty, Brown said, is the feeling of responsibility that she shares as part of the surgical team to make the experience a smooth one.
“It’s a very high-demanding, stressful job at points, and I definitely have my own tools to make sure I’m going into work at the top of my game, and I’m focused and energized,” she said.
To prepare for the demands of the operating room, Brown practices a daily meditation that she said helps to clarify her perspective, her intentions, and focus on the patient. Even after three or four years, she said, “being present with everything that you do is a daily practice” that doesn’t come easily in the fast-paced world of New York City, let alone the high-intensity operating room.
“When you stay positive and stay calm and keep the atmosphere as least stressful as possible, you’re not only benefiting yourself, but the attitude is contagious,” Brown said. “I feel that you might not be able to see it in the current moment, but it has lasting effects that are beneficial to everyone.”
“We have a lot on our plate,” she said. “We have a ton of things to do. Making sure that everything the surgeon needs is there, it’s still super-important to not lose being in that moment and making sure that you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that the patient is always a priority.”
Ultimately, Brown said, everything in the surgical suite is about the patient, including her meditative practices. Her coworkers — who are “incredible, super-intelligent, driven people” — have the common goal of patient safety. Keeping herself “happy and centered and balanced” enables Brown to be a better, more supportive role player on that team.
“Literally, our entire OR will drop anything at any given moment to come help you if they’re able to,” Brown said. “That’s a rare environment.”
Because turnover times are “the number one money-maker for the hospital,” surgical teams can feel pressured to move as quickly as possible, Brown said. Meditation helps her to anchor her focus on the job for the best outcome possible for the patient.
“You just have such a clearer perspective on why you’re there, what your intention is, and you’re able to focus on the patient when you come into work with that mindset,” Brown said.
Gaining greater acceptance for such an inwardly focused practice can be exceptionally difficult in such a high-stress environment, Brown said. She was excited to learn that NYU Langone has an in-house meditation center, and hopes it can be a jumping-off point for others to explore the practice.
“I know that they have a good spiritual support team [here],” she said, “but that’s another great option for patients and their healing and for all of us to decompress throughout the day.”