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“Regardless of what profession you are in, you need to be passionate about what you do.  There is no point in going into a field where you dread going to work every day. You need to choose a life worth living.” — Mary Sayles

Mary Sayles works as a nurse in Milwaukee, a field rooted in molecular biology, biochemistry, and medicine. Everyday Mary finds herself using scientific knowledge of how chemical and molecular compounds act and applies that knowledge to treat patients. The patients she sees come from a widely variable genetic makeup, disease manifestations, and external factors, which create a unique biochemical environment to assess. Her job as a nurse bridges the gap of where knowledge of basic science research and applied healthcare coincide. Recently, Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) had the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with Actual Living Scientist Mary Sayles regarding the many ways science impacts patient care, the connection of basic science to applied science, and the intricate details of her journey as a nurse.

Mary works on the corner of Oklahoma Ave and 27th street in West Milwaukee. The hospital, Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, has a reputation for leading-edge medical treatment and patient care. Nationally ranked in three adult specialties and rated the second-best hospital in Wisconsin, St. Luke’s offers the community exceptional medical care. The success of the hospital is the direct result of the dedicated physicians, nurses, and team members working collaboratively to treat ailments. Mary Sayles is one of those professionals, working as an RN (Registered Nurse) on the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit and transitioning to a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) in Oncology.

As an RN on the Neurosurgical ICU, her days are fast-paced and grounded in human biochemistry. During her 12-hour shift, she routinely treats patients diagnosed with brain tumors and brain bleeds. When seeing a patient, one of the first things she looks at are are lab values, which often include data concerning electrolytes, blood chemistry, and kidney function. “For example, one lab value I look at includes Creatinine, because many medications are excreted through the kidneys,” says Mary. Creatinine is a compound produced in muscles and filtered out of the body in the kidneys, and is used as a marker for normal or abnormal kidney function. “Patients who have Chronic Kidney Disease and abnormal Creatinine lab values often need to have their medication doses adjusted so they don’t have too much or too little medication in their system. As a nurse, it isn’t within my scope to make these adjustments, but I will need to do this in my NP role. Currently as a nurse, when I am faced with a situation like this, I will bring it to the doctors attention and ensure the proper changes are made.”  Aside from the pharmacological aspect of her job, biochemistry plays a large role in other aspects of patient care. For instance, if a patient experiences declining respiratory status, the team needs to immediately assess the patient’s blood gasses. In order to properly intervene, she analyzes the blood pH and how much CO2 is retained. If CO2  builds up in a patient’s blood, it causes a decrease in pH which reduces oxygen’s ability to bind to hemoglobin. Human blood pH falls in a very narrow range of 7.35-7.45 and alterations in the blood gas equilibrium can decrease cellular function. Decisions and interventions often need to be made in a short time frame, requiring analytical skills to be second nature.

As she transitions to her role as Oncology Nurse Practitioner, she will spend the first six months taking oncology and chemotherapy courses while training under group lead NPs. “It is a very science-based specialty because every cancer has a specific chemotherapy or treatment plan,” Mary says. “It is necessary to obtain a biopsy, or cancer cells, in order to determine what is the correct treatment for each patient.”

Working as a nurse practitioner at St. Luke’s, she is able to directly impact the health care of citizens in Milwaukee. Nurse practitioners in Wisconsin can diagnose and treat patients under physician supervision. A medical center that has both physicians and NPs active as clinicians allows for a higher volume of patients to be treated. This directly addresses the physician shortage Milwaukee has been facing. Moreover, her training provides for the comprehensive treatment of a patient. “I was trained to approach illness from a holistic view since the base of my practice will be from a nursing-based perspective. When I look at a problem, I try to not focus on just the single issue, but look at the patient as a whole, or their environment, since it is all interconnected,” says Mary.

Mary started her career with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences from Marquette University. While working as a quality control inspector for a local medical device company, there was a part of her that felt she was called to do something different. Stemming from a love of health care, personal experiences, and an interest in gross anatomy, she decided to take a leap. She enrolled in graduate school at UW-Milwaukee Direct Entry Nursing program. The program is intensive and prepares students to receive a Master in Nursing (MN) degree while giving them experience working as an RN during the second half of the course. Importantly, the course prepares students for the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam), a national exam required to work as a nurse in the United States. During this time Mary also completed work which earned her a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) certification, a credential which is only available to master’s educated nurses, and signifies her advancement in coordinated care, and evidence-based medical decisions. This program is unique in that it allows individuals to enter the field of nursing in a non-traditional path.

In order to obtain her position, Mary spent four years obtaining an undergraduate degree, three years to complete her MN, and two years for her DNP. The last three-and-a-half years were concurrent with working as an RN full time.

My love for health care and caring for individuals is driven by personal experiences. My older brother is a brain cancer survivor and is the reason I wanted to work in health care, and specifically the Neurosurgical ICU as a nurse and Oncology as a Nurse Practitioner. My father also just recently celebrated his twentieth anniversary since surviving a debilitating stroke. Growing up with these experiences has driven me to work hard towards making a difference in health care and in the lives of those I treat.

Nine years following her initial entrance into college, her full title is Mary Sayles, DNP, MN, RN-BC, FNP-BC, CNL. Post-nominal letters signifying her Doctorate of Nurse Practice, Master’s of Nursing (MN), Pain Management Nursing Certification (RN-BC), Family Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (FNP-BC), and Clinical Nurse Leader.

Working as an Oncology DPN has been her dream. It is a challenging field with complex treatment. Yet, there is a significant emotional component to this field. A cancer diagnoses has a profound impact on a patient and their families. In the future, her doctorate and biomedical background provide a path to academic research and teaching, which she may one day consider. For now, Milwaukee is lucky to have her as a dedicated, talented, and Actual Living Scientist.

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