By Lisa M. Zajac, DNP, RN, ANP, BC, OCN®

lisa zajac
Lisa M. Zajac, DNP, RN, ANP, BC, OCN®, is the director of clinical informatics at Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit, MI.

I remember my first day as a student nurse technician at an academic medical center as if it was yesterday. It was a Saturday afternoon shift in May 1996 on 10 Green at Harper Hospital in Detroit, MI, on a hematology unit that cared for patients with either malignant hematology (i.e., leukemia and lymphoma) or benign hematology conditions (e.g., sickle cell disease).

My nurse, Violetta, gave me the morning’s report, telling me about a young adult patient who had acute leukemia as well as the others I would be caring for that afternoon. I chose my first patient assignment ever: assessing the vital signs of the young adult.

I was so afraid to go into his room. But as I walked in, he welcomed me and had the biggest smile. He knew immediately that I was nervous, and I remember him saying, “This is easy, and I know you can do it.”

He ended up receiving a bone marrow transplant, and I would go and visit with him when I worked. We always talked about football because he played before his diagnosis. Gradually he got sicker and sicker and he was transferred to the intensive care unit. Seeing him there and talking to his family in the waiting room was my first lesson of what it means to prepare to say goodbye to a patient—and not only a patient, but one I had grown attached to. He was just two years younger than me. Both of us should have been enjoying college life, but only I was.

Sadly, he died later that year. I will always remember his smile and our moments together. He was the first person who gave me the confidence that I needed to do this work.

From my earliest days, I was never fond of new beginnings. I arrived in this world four weeks late and cried every day for the first four months of kindergarten because I didn’t want to go to school. Eventually my anxiety subsided—that is, until I started junior high and had to leave the only school I had ever known. The same happened with my high school and college transitions, so it was not surprising that my first day as a student nurse technician was anxiety producing either.

I remember how excited I was to start my nursing clinical experiences, but starting this job was different. It was as though I had arrived in nursing; it was both an amazing feeling and a feeling of anxiety at the same time. I worked side by side with nurses but never had I felt as much of a responsibility on my shoulders than I had that afternoon as I entered my first patient’s room to obtain his vital signs, a task so simple and the first one you learn in nursing school.

Since then, I’ve changed roles many times. I would be lying if I said that I did not have anxiety as I embarked on each new path, but I had the support of colleagues who encouraged me every step of the way. Yes, each role change has some risk, but the experiences I have had have shaped the nursing leader I am today. As I think of the many accomplishments in the variety of roles I have held, one stands out in my mind. It is not something that I have shared with many, but I think of it as I approach each new role.

When I was a nurse practitioner, a colleague named Lucinda introduced me to a new employee like this: “I have worked with Lisa since she started here as a student nurse technician, and no matter how many degrees she gets or what job she has, she always treats every member of the team with the same importance.” To date, this is one of the greatest professional compliments I’ve received. I think of it as I move past the anxieties of starting each new role change and work environment, and it eases me into the unfamiliar setting, allowing me to immediately begin to build relationships.

New beginnings can be difficult, but they help us to work toward achieving our full potential. As Semisonic sang in “Closing Time” in the 1990s, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Although the initial transitions were scary, I have never regretted all the times I took a risk to have a new beginning.