Texas Woman Becomes Nurse in Same Unit Where Husband Received Bone Marrow Transplant

Her husband’s leukemia diagnosis inspired a poignant career change for this mom of three. 

Jennifer Smith goes to work every day with a clear sense of purpose. As an oncology nurse in the bone marrow transplant unit of St. David's South Austin Medical Center, she cares for patients with leukemia. Like the other nurses in her unit, she's filled with knowledge, experience, and a strong passion for providing the best possible care to her patients. But unlike her counterparts, she also possesses one extra quality that's proven to be invaluable to her work: perspective.

Nearly six years ago, Jennifer was first introduced to her future place of work when her husband Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, Jennifer was a stay-at-home mom raising three daughters. Ryan, a software engineer for Sony, was the family's primary breadwinner.

"When your spouse is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, there are a lot of practical concerns," she told Southern Living. "You start thinking, 'I may need to support my family financially.' So, one of my first thoughts was, 'I need to get a job.'"

Jennifer and Ryan Smith
Courtesy of Jennifer Smith

Around the same time these thoughts started floating through her mind, Ryan began in-patient treatment. Through her experience as Ryan's primary caregiver, Jennifer received a crash course in oncology, cancer, and patient care.

"At some point, I fell in love with nursing," she remembers.

Ryan received a bone marrow transplant in May 2016, just five months after first being diagnosed. Jennifer started nursing school a month or two later.

"By the time I went to school, it was a big reprieve in some ways," she said about the transition from mom and caretaker to student. "It was something just for me that I was working on. My kids were all in school, so I was in school when they were in school. It was nice for me that I didn't feel like they noticed I was gone or that there were any changes."

Early in her nursing education, Jennifer said it was clear that she had made the right decision. She enjoyed diving deeper into the topics she learned about during Ryan's treatment, and she felt excited about what she was doing—something she said she never felt when pursuing a business management degree in her early 20s. She also knew exactly where she wanted to work upon graduation.

Courtesy of Jennifer Smith

"Everything oncology was where my heart and mind were invested," she said. "When I called [the department] and said I was ready to come work, they were all so excited. The director was like, 'I've been waiting for your call.'"

Since starting her job in July, Jennifer has cared for countless patients and families. Though she doesn't make a habit of sharing her family's cancer story, she said the perspective it has given her certainly helps.

"No one knows that five years ago, I was that caregiver sitting on the [hospital room] couch for hours on end," she said. "When I'm at work, I look at my patient and think about all the medical issues I need to manage and keep an eye out for, but I also have a very intimate understanding of what's on a patient's mind and what kinds of feelings their spouse may be having."

Jennifer said though she found her calling later in life, she wouldn't change a single thing about how her story unfolded.

"I really love my job, and I love my family," she said. "I'm just very, very fortunate."

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