Nurse Values Her Role in the Healing Process

burnadette hanson
Photo by David Christopher

Bernadette Hanson, RN, checks the blood pressure of a patient Susan McClure, of Chicago.


By Barbara Kirchheimer

Nursing runs in the family for Bernadette Hanson, RN. Both her mother and grandmother were nurses. Her two sisters are nurses. When it came time to decide on a career path, fate pulled her in the same direction.

“It was almost inescapable,” she said.

To Hanson, nursing is much more than a paycheck. It is about building relationships and making connections with people during a wrenching time in their lives, helping them heal and making their journey through the medical system as smooth as possible.

Hanson has been at the University of Chicago Medical Center for 12 of her 15 years in nursing and has spent time in otolaryngology, surgery and reconstructive surgery, where she now works in the Section of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery with section chief David H. Song, MD, and Julie Park, MD, assistant professor of surgery. One of Hanson’s many duties is helping breast cancer patients find a “new normal” following surgery. The patients she sees often are reeling from their cancer diagnosis and uncertain about how to navigate the web of specialists and medical procedures they may face.

It is the nurse who can bring order to what may seem a chaotic environment. “I am the go-to person,” she said. “I think patients see me as someone they can e-mail or call with something they forgot to tell the physician. I see myself as the person who is bridging the gap.

Hanson watches her patients carefully — their body language, words and omissions — for cues about how they are coping with their diagnosis and treatment. “I’m trying to get a sense of where they’re at, not just physically,” she said.

Eloise Orr was one of Hanson’s patients. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 20 years old in 2002, she underwent a double mastectomy and several other treatments and surgeries during the next five years in her fight against the disease. Following Orr’s breast reconstruction, Hanson was one of two nurses who  performed a medical tattoo of Orr’s breast – a process to darken the skin and define the area around the nipple. “She took the time to walk me through the procedure carefully, making sure I was comfortable with it,” Orr said. Orr credited the nurses not only with the success of the procedure but also with helping her deal with larger life issues, as well.

Hanson said going the extra mile is part of a nurse’s job. She will gladly order a taxi, pass along information to a family member, fill out a form for someone who is visually impaired or help a wandering patient navigate an unfamiliar hallway. Going the extra mile also extends to Hanson’s interactions with physicians. To prepare for a clinic, she runs down the list of patients and pulls files on each one to give the physicians the details of their latest visits, which might have been two or more years ago. “I understand that the physicians are depending on me to know something about why the patients are coming in,” she said.

Without nurses, there would be less empathy in the medical system, Hanson said. And that could easily lead to frustrated patients who might not follow through with suggested treatments or speak up about symptoms. That ultimately could compromise their outcomes. Being an integral part of someone’s healing process is one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession, she added.

“If you’re a people person, it’s probably one of the most wonderful experiences you can have,” she said. “Just being able to see someone regain their independence or get a smile back or say, ‘You know what, this is temporary and I’m going to get better’ — that is better than a paycheck.”