Nurses who find a good fit in this field are generally fascinated by brain science and all the different implications that brain health and brain injury have on a person’s daily life. Neuroscience nurses help patients who may have a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or who may have brain injuries resulting from a car accident or a fall or from an aneurism or infection. Neuroscience nurses also work with patients who have had a stroke or have multiple sclerosis.
Neuroscience nurses work with patients to help them stabilize if they have had a brain injury and to manage the everyday impacts of brain injury and disease. They may work in recovery and rehabilitation to monitor progression and to encourage patients and families as they take the journey to recovery or, in some cases, to manage a progressive disease. They may also work in an inpatient or outpatient facility or in the OR. Frequently, nurses in this role develop long relationships with patients and their families. As people recover from or progress through the impacts and symptoms of brain injury or brain disease, these nurses are a sounding board, a resource, and a champion of their patients.
Because the human brain is incredibly complex and any brain injury can have a major impact on the way the body functions, a career in neuroscience nursing is challenging. Nurses in this specialty must remain current in all the latest research in brain science and in the rapidly advancing technology that helps patients with brain injury or diseases. While patient care is generally the primary focus in the career, nurses who are fascinated by brain science can also choose to lead research, may hold leadership and teaching roles in academia, and may advocate for the patients and nurses who are impacted by brain health.
The American Association of Neuroscience Nurses (AANN) is the professional organization for nurses in this specialty and is an excellent resource for both novice and veteran neuroscience nurses. Nurses can connect with others in their field, learn about educational opportunities, find out about conferences, and have access to job openings. Because neuroscience nurses have a complex specialty, the network of nurses in the field can act as a nationwide resource for puzzling cases or to hear about groundbreaking research being done around the globe. Nurses might also reference the World Federation of Neuroscience Nurses to see what’s happening in the field worldwide.
Neuroscience nurses know that brain health can change everything from a patient’s physical health to their psychological health and so they must be able to adapt to changing conditions rapidly and calmly. As they gain experience in the field they develop valuable knowledge and capabilities that positively impact the patient and the larger health team. While the challenges are constant, so are the rewards.
“I did the lab thing for eight months and then went to nursing right away,” she says. Her background still fuels her passion for everything she does in her nursing work. “In nursing I am using art and science. I get intrigued by looking at COVID and the dynamics of that piece. Using my science and nursing backgrounds, I see how it all works.”
After nursing school, Lane’s first job was in a neuro NICU, she says, an option that really isn’t open to new nurses today and was a rarity when she began. “It was unheard of for a new grad to go into ICU,” she says. “They put us in with the residents and fellows so we would have knowledge of the brain. Since then, I have always been a neuro girl.”
One of those early experiences really highlighted the resiliency of the brain and completely hooked Lane on working with neuro patients. As she was working at a clinical in the operating room, Lane says she was so fascinated by the brain surgery going on that she asked to stay for the whole procedure, long past the required hours for the day. “I had the patient the next day,” she recalls, and it was incredible for her to see how people recover and how the brain adapts.
As patients recover, Lane knows the empathy and precise care they need. “It’s an art, science, and a craft,” she says of the complex neuroscience nursing it takes to guide neuro patients through their recovery. “They need to take it one day at a time. It’s a journey and it takes time.” It also takes a village and neuro nurses are looking for ways to help families through such a complex process as well.
Lane says she can’t emphasize enough the importance of joining a professional organization, especially for anyone interested in neuroscience nursing. As a neuroscience nurse, she says, there is so much new science emerging around the brain, that nurses need resources to stay current. “I believe neuro is the only service line that touches every other service line,” she says. So whether a nurse is looking at a a more specific specialty such as stroke, Parkinson’s, or migraine, as Lane does, there are all other areas of the body to consider. “I can text someone [from a professional network] and ask, ‘What are you doing on the West Coast for this?’”
With so many professional organizations devoted to nurses, Lane says they also give minority nurses an essential professional relationships. “Diversity is so important in nursing,” she says. “We need to understand different perspectives and experiences.” In some areas, there may be a dozen languages that need translation on any given day, and families who need to speak with someone who can help them. If there are only nurses who speak English, a big piece of care is missing. Professional organizations help build those connections. “You have resources around you and it’s very collaborative,” Lane says. “Neuro is small and you can see a professional network as a helping hand.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is something neuro nurses are seeing as the tip of the iceberg right now. Next year will be interesting for neuro, she says, as the longer term impacts of COVID on the brain may begin to emerge. But the foundational science behind neuroscience care will still apply. “We can figure out how to help if you are in a brain fog,” she says. “There’s rehab or cognitive brush ups or drills. People need to be mindful, pause, and not multitask. It uses so much more energy to do that—and that intrigues me.”
Lane has long focused on stroke care, but she says she’s becoming more interested in epilepsy. “There are so many specialties within the neuro specialty,” she says. “I want to always learn something different. It helps to keep your own brain engaged and to learn something new. I am learning more about epilepsy and the more we can know and share, the better.”
As neuroscience nurses advance in their careers, they are also excellent advocates and mentors for younger nurses . “I am helping new nurses in the field and helping the community understand neuroscience,” she says. “We need to keep talking about it. The sky is the limit. This is truly a calling for me.”
When Neuroscience Nurses Week arrives every May, nurses in this specialty champion the vast choices they have within this career path.
For Ebonye Green, MNSc, APRN and director-at-large for the American Association of Neuroscience Nurses (AANN), becoming a neuroscience nurse was hardly something she planned. “I have my bachelor’s in chemistry, and I was going to go to pharmacy school or med school,” she says. She actually ended up going to pharmacy school and was two years into the program when an off-chance comment by a patient she saw every month changed everything. “He said, ‘This isn’t for you. You should do something else.’”
Green took a chance. She shadowed people at a university hospital while still working with outpatient pharmacy patients. “One night, I was pulled into the neuro ICU,” she says. Other nurses said she was going to hate it because the patients can be unpredictable. The talk made her nervous to go in, but the result was transformative. “I loved it,” she says.
When fall semester came around, Greene didn’t go back to pharmacy school, instead enrolling in nursing school. “That was totally out of character for me to quit something,” she says. “My parents were surprised because I am a planner. I am a Type A, which actually fits in really well with neuroscience nursing.” But she had everything worked out from finding funding to moving credits around. “People thought I was crazy,” she says. And while she says she really didn’t know what to expect, she had a gut feeling that she was on a path that suited her. “It felt right,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was going to work. I have never felt that way. I always learn something new every day. It’s eye-opening. It’s exciting.”
Green says making connections with other neuroscience nurses early in her career helped her gain her footing and gave her a sounding board. She talked to other nurses through AANN, and they gave her career-boosting tips. She was told how important it was to gain additional certification in her specialty or sub-specialty. They also let her know about neuroscience journals and about how conferences for neuroscience nurses were a great way to find other like-minded professionals.
Green understands why the nurses so long ago thought she might not like neuroscience nursing—it’s not a field that will appeal to everyone. “Things are happening with your patients and you can’t see it,” she says. There’s no cast to show a broken bone healing and no pacemaker to check on, she says. “It’s in the brain and you don’t see the moving parts,” she says. “You have to rely on your exam and what you know about the patient.”
But those very things are what keep Green motivated. “For me, it’s all about education,” she says. “It’s about wanting to know more to take better care of my patients.” It’s easier today to find the information she needs, but when Green first started, not many people were using the internet the way they do today. “You couldn’t Google something on a phone,” she says. “I was opening textbooks and showing my patients.”
Calling neuro recovery “a marathon, not a sprint,” Green says the education piece of recovery is vital. She works with patients, families, and caregivers who often just have to come to terms with a long, uncertain recovery. Finding out what can help patients calms everyone’s fears a bit, she says. Like pieces of a puzzle, as Green sorts out the reasons someone is under her care, she can help formulate the best path back to having the best life possible.
Nursing students who think neuroscience nursing is appealing should also realize the specialty, like a nursing career, is broad. “You can create your own avenue,” says Green. If you want to work with stroke patients, you could find yourself working with them from the time they hit the door in the emergency department or in rehab after they have had initial treatments. You could even find a place in the OR as a neuroscience nurse. “While you are on different rotations, decide what you want to do,” says Green.
Green particularly likes being able to follow her patients through their recovery. “We are in this together,” she says. “This is a very challenging and extremely rewarding field.”
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