By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more than 20 years, Erica Branam held fast to her dream of becoming a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children.
She wrote an essay on that very subject as a senior in high school. It all seemed so clear.
“I wrote with such passion and innocence and naivety … and, well, I got here, but it took me 20 years.”
The innocence and naivety may be gone, but the passion is as strong as ever for the 40-year-old pastor’s wife, mother and first-year nurse on 8 West at Riley.
Her journey almost ended before it began when she nearly died in a car accident in 2003 while on her way to the doctor. The Carmel, Indiana, native was in her last year of nursing school in Tennessee. She was also six months pregnant.
But an argument before she left had rattled her and led to a near-fatal mistake. She did not buckle her seat belt. As she was driving on a two-lane country road, the last thing she remembers is feeling hot and dizzy.
Her next memory is of being in a hospital unable to communicate while doctors and nurses worked to save her life.
FARMER LIFTS CAR TO SAVE HER
Branam found out later that her car had gone off the road and she had been ejected through the driver’s side window and thrown into a telephone pole. The car pinned her against the pole.
It was an elderly farmer rehabbing from shoulder surgery who found her.
“I don’t remember this, but he said I looked at him and said, ‘Please help me. I’m going to die.’ By the grace of God, he was able to pull the car off of me and he sat with me and prayed with me until the rescue squad arrived,” Branam said.
“I hope someday I make it to heaven and I believe the first person I will see is him. He’s just really, really special.”
Erica and Nathan Branam’s first child, Isaiah, survived that accident and is now an 18-year-old high school senior.
He would be followed by two more children, and Erica settled into life as a stay-at-home mom for 12 years. But her dream never died.
When her kids were all school-aged, she returned to work in a doctor’s office but without her nursing degree. That experience rekindled her desire to complete her RN degree, so she returned to the classroom as well, balancing a job and three kids while the family was living in Illinois.
Then came another surprise.
“I found out I was pregnant again during the last semester of school, but I graduated and I took a position in family practice,” she said.
It was a wonderful job, she said, but it wasn’t enough.
“Nursing is this beautiful art of both heart and skill, and you have to balance both,” she said. “In family practice, I was able to use a lot of heart in caring for families, but the second piece was really missing for me.”
She and Nathan had moved their family back to Indiana by then, and she decided to look for a position at Riley. The stars seemed aligned, and she was offered a position as a nurse on 8 West in August 2019.
Her joy was short-lived. It turns out her degree from nursing school in Illinois only offered regional accreditation, not the higher level of accreditation required by Riley.
“To have it within my grasp, it was devastating,” she said. “That was a hard, hard night, but I have an amazing support system who rallied around me. My husband got me ice cream, my son got me flowers, and my family came over and just sat with me in that sadness.”
And then she picked herself up again, thanks in part to support from her sister, Carly Wenzel, a nurse practitioner at IU Health Methodist Hospital. Wenzel pinned her at her nursing graduation in Illinois.
“You’re doing this, you’re not going to give up now,” Wenzel told her sister.
And she was right. Within 48 hours, Branam was already looking for schools where she could bridge her RN degree to a BSN. Within a week, she had applied and reached back out to 8W shift coordinator Beth Eubanks to tell her she was not giving up on her dream.
LIVING THE DREAM
Last January, amid a pandemic, all the pieces finally fell into place, and Branam began working as a nurse on the pulmonary unit in the place she felt called to be. It’s even better than she imagined. But it’s not easy.
“I’m just so grateful to be here, even on the hard days,” she said. “I get in my car some days and cry out of exhaustion or heartbreak. These families are going through hard stuff. And we’re stretched to the limit, especially right now in the midst of the pandemic.”
Shift coordinator Eubanks and unit manager Sara Murff are thrilled to have Branam on their team, both for her enthusiasm and her compassion for others.
“She does a wonderful job connecting with our patients and families, and they get that,” Eubanks said. “We were so blown away by her interview and so glad she came back to us. She does a good job of representing all of IU Health’s values – she’s compassionate, organized, strong and a team player. She’s got everything going on. We just love her.”
For her part, Branam is thankful to be on 8W, calling it the “gem of Riley.”
“The culture that our managers have created is one of support and safety,” she said. “Our providers are so respectful and supportive. It’s a great collaborative team.”
While a typical year might bring a lot of cystic fibrosis patients to the unit, the census is different these days as nurses share the load caring for different patients. On the day we spoke to Branam, she was assigned to a cardiac patient, a respiratory patient and a COVID patient.
Her family knows that on those days, she must go directly to the shower when she gets home. Even her 2-year-old understands.
“When I come home, I’ve been gone for 12 hours and my family misses me and I miss them. But I can’t touch them. They know that. It’s heartbreaking. When my little one sees me, she says, ‘You got germs?’ She’ll follow me at a distance to the shower and stand outside the shower until I finish. When I get out, she says, ‘You don’t got germs no more?’ ”
It’s adorable if it weren’t so tragic.
Still, Branam wouldn’t trade this job, nor her journey, for anything. Twenty years ago, she says, she was not ready.
“I didn’t have the experiences, the knowledge, all the pieces to be able to sit here and be the best nurse I could possibly be here. All of that has played into my whole experience. It has shaped me in the way I interact with my patients and their families.”
CLOSE TO HER HEART
On the back of her ID badge next to her heart she keeps a picture of her kids, now 18, 15, 12 and 2.
“I keep them on my heart every day because it’s hard to be gone for 12 hours from your babies, but I also think it creates some understanding and safety for families if my badge does flip over. I often will say to families, I’m a mama too and I’ve sat in these rooms too.”
She often tells her families that they are their child’s best advocate because they know their child best.
“They are an important piece in a child’s plan of care. I tell them, ‘You know your child far better than I do and I will never be mad at you for advocating for them.’ I love it when parents ask questions and challenge me because that creates a conversation for us to give the best care possible.”
She remembers back to the day in 2003 when she was lying on a hospital gurney while the medical team rushed around her, not realizing she could see and hear everything. She just couldn’t speak.
It was a student nurse who noticed a tear rolling down Branam’s cheek and came over to look her in the eyes and tell her where she was and that she was safe. She has never forgotten that, relying on that same level of skill, awareness and compassion to communicate with her own patients today.
Maybe she could have picked an easier time to become a bedside nurse, but Branam believes this is exactly where she is meant to be, pandemic and all.
“Nursing is so much more than a job. It truly is a calling. And if you’re called to something, you can’t run from that.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com