Applied Experience: Sarah Walker, RN, CRRN
November 2, 2021
Some of our rehabilitation nurses have personal experiences that give them special insights to the physical rehabilitation and recovery process. We’d like you to meet them in this series entitled “Applied Experience.” Each of the featured nurses experienced a dramatic medical episode. Their stories illustrate the perfect synergy that has resulted between lived experience and patient care.
Sarah Walker was just 31 and in the midst of studying for her finals at the end of her first semester of nursing school when the unthinkable happened.
That particular day, she’d cleaned the gutters and put up Christmas lights. And then, about 3:00 in the morning, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her husband performed CPR while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Instead of taking finals with her friends, she would be having a craniotomy. She spent two weeks in the ICU, two days on the floor and went home with sunglasses, ear muffs and headgear to protect her from over-stimulation. But she was happy to be home with her family before Christmas, happy to be alive.
She made up her final in February even though she wasn’t reading or writing yet, passing with a B. Then a second aneurysm happened and Sarah decided to take a break from school to focus on recovery. That fall, she volunteered in her children’s school library to work on her alphabet sequencing. She’d progressed enough that she felt ready to return to nursing school in 2013.
This time, she realized she was learning differently and that school was much harder, but even so, she still made a B. She took some time off to further her recovery and reapplied in the fall of 2014, though her instructors sympathetically advised her to accept her deficits and not attempt any academic rigors.
Sarah, however, characterizes herself as “stubborn” and someone who didn’t see her deficits as a limitation but something to overcome. She’d always liked challenges, was president of the student nursing association at Chattanooga State and would eventually do a TEDTalk on “My New Brain.” She enrolled anyway.
In 2014, she had a cryptogenic stroke, but continued with her nursing program, finally graduating in 2015. Chattanooga State presented her with the Presidential Award for Perseverance. It had taken her five years to complete the two-year degree.
“There were plenty of times when I wondered if I could get through nursing school,” Sarah says. “But I never really thought of giving up.”
During the last semester prior to graduation, she did a management rotation at Siskin Hospital. She’d already been involved in the Stroke Support Group and had chosen Siskin Hospital specifically for her rotation because of her own experience. As she was touring the hospital, she was offered a job, and after orientation, Sarah was charged with her own shift straight out of nursing school.
Now, as she cares for brain injury and stroke patients, she knows by her own experience what they are thinking and feeling. She notes that in an acute facility, medical staff are just trying to stabilize patients, who may not be in a condition to absorb what’s happening to them or any of the helpful information the staff are giving them. It’s only when they arrive at Siskin Hospital that the fog begins to clear and patients realize how they are different, how they’ve changed. It’s at that point that Sarah meets them and can tell them that “this is doable” – that even though things are different, they will be able to deal with it.
“The best thing someone ever told me was that eventually I’d get from day to day,” she remembers. “But before I got to that point, there would be many days when I had to get from hour to hour.”
Through it all, however, she could see the bigger picture.
“I firmly believe God has a plan for my life,” she says. “In many ways, my experience has been a blessing to me and to others.”