By Matt Skoufalos
Nechami Brilliant has always put family before everything else in her life. A registered nurse and perioperative instructor, in the neuro/spine operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, Maryland, Brilliant began her health care career as a doula.
For 15 years, she guided other women through childbirth while raising her own kids at home. And every time she returned home from coaching another new mother through labor and delivery, she told her husband how much she thought she could become a nurse.
“Eventually, he said, ‘Just go for it,’” Brilliant said. “I quit and went to school full-time.”
When she was wrapping up her education, however, labor and delivery jobs were difficult to land, so Brilliant applied to any and every nursing position to which she could send a resume. The Baltimore native stopped just short, however, of daring to aim as high as Johns Hopkins University, the world-renowned medical institution in her own backyard.
“I had some interesting interviews, but nothing stuck,” Brilliant said. “I’d applied to other local hospitals but avoided Johns Hopkins because I thought it was over my head. My friend convinced me to apply, telling me they train new nurses. Within 24 hours I had an interview for the neuro and spine surgical unit.”
In short order, Brilliant went from wondering if she’d be good enough to land a job in a premier medical setting to training for one of the most intense surgical units to which she could be assigned. The six months she spent in orientation for the operating room began a process of personal and professional growth that she said was among the most transformative of her life.
“When I came into the job, I was on the quieter side,” Brilliant said. “I was very caring and very compassionate, but I didn’t have a lot of the professional skills, the communication skills that I learned on the job. It helped me blossom.”
Throughout her orientation, Brilliant learned both the circulating and the scrubbing roles simultaneously. Following the in-house motto, “you see one, you do one, and then you teach one,” she then began precepting new nurses after about 18 months on the job. Spending two days in the unit and two days in the perioperative education offices, Brilliant discovered that she enjoyed teaching as much as learning.
“I had already started to grow my own backbone and communicate with the surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists, and when they needed help in the education office, I started educating new nurses in the hospital,” she said. “They would pull me off the floor to help in the classroom, and I became part of the team orienting new nurses.”
Teaching fulfilled Brilliant in the same way that her career in labor and delivery coaching did. In her new role as a nurse educator, she relied upon the underlying principles that had allowed her to mentor and develop her clients’ comfort with childbirth techniques to help new nurses find the fullness of their potentials as well.
“I love helping people succeed and helping people grow and mature like I did,” Brilliant said. “I know what they’re experiencing, and I feel like I can speak and connect with them and help them with the process.”
Beyond learning from her instructors at Johns Hopkins, Brilliant also had the unlikely opportunity to apply the knowledge she’d acquired there to save one of their lives. Earlier this spring, as one of her educators was leaving for the day, she called Brilliant to say she thought she needed to go to the emergency room.
“I ran to the other side of the hospital with a wheelchair, and by the time I had gotten to her, I could see that something was wrong,” Brilliant said. “Her face was drooping, and she was throwing up terribly. I said, ‘I think you need a lot more than the E.D.”
The number for the hospital rapid response unit had been burned into her brain from orientation, and faster than Brilliant could believe, the team was there to perform a stroke assessment. She accompanied her colleague to the emergency room before returning to the office to call her coworker’s family.
This all happened during the height of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and visitors were not allowed into the hospital. That made the circumstances all the more challenging, but thankfully, the rapid intervention that Brilliant had helped provide allowed her colleague to survive the stroke without any lingering deficits. Within 48 hours, she was discharged to her family.
Throughout the entire experience, Brilliant leaned on the education she’d received at Johns Hopkins to advocate for her coworker as fiercely as she does for her patients.
“I have worked very hard on myself to be a big patient advocate and to speak up and speak out when there’s an issue going wrong,” she said. “I’m also a very reliable team player; when surgeons come into the OR, they know that I’ve got their back.”
Brilliant hopes to parlay her experience as an educator to teach the next generation of nurses at the community college level or online.
“It’ll take me a few years, but I’ll get there,” she said. “I really love encouraging the growth of people, so I hope I’ll be able to give back some of what I was given in the schools that I attended.”
Among the wisdom Brilliant seeks to impart upon new nurses, it’s to seek out and take advantage of mentors who will encourage your growth, be open to learning, and accept constructive criticism as an opportunity to develop personally and professionally “instead of feeling that you’re not there yet.
“I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by nurses who are wiser and phenomenal mentors, in addition to people who are here who’ve moved on and have really encouraged my growth,” she said.