carissa lucas - texas a&m college of nursing

Second career, second chance

Nursing student overcomes health challenges to care for patients
May 18, 2016

Ask Carissa Lucas who inspires her, and she will tell you that her parents and her sister do. Ask her professors at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing in Round Rock, who inspires them, and they will tell you it’s Carissa Lucas.

Lucas will be walking the stage to receive her nursing pin and diploma from the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing on May 20. A student in the college’s Second Degree Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) track, she was to earn her BSN at an accelerated pace in the 15 month program. But, her journey to becoming a registered nurse took more time, energy and dedication than even she could have imagined.

The second-career nursing student earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor with a desire to work in public relations and marketing. After working at a small firm in Austin for one year, Lucas realized that she wanted a career that was more meaningful to her.

“I had a couple of roommates who were in nursing school, and that intrigued me,” Lucas said. “I started looking at nursing as a potential career, and decided that it was the direction I wanted to take.” So, she shadowed a nurse working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. David’s Hospital in Austin, and she was hooked.

“I really enjoyed my experience at St. David’s. I liked being active, on my feet and doing something that really mattered.” From there Lucas enrolled in an anatomy class at a local community college to gauge her interest and aptitude in pursuing a science-based curriculum. “I told myself if I didn’t do well, then nursing wasn’t what I was supposed to do.” She both enjoyed and excelled at science, so she continued working while taking her prerequisite courses.

Almost two years after taking the anatomy class, Lucas was accepted into the nursing program at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. But, just a few weeks into the  program, Lucas found a lump on the left-side of her neck.

“I had class and a test, so I thought it would have to wait. I came to school and one of my professors said that I should have it checked out, so I called my doctor and went to an appointment after class.”

Lucas’ doctor sent her to the emergency room to have a CT scan. Three hours later, she was told that the scans were consistent with lymphoma. Two weeks later, Lucas was diagnosed with stage two unfavorable Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Lucas began chemotherapy at Texas Oncology, which is across the street from the Round Rock campus. “I had chemotherapy every other week, and was able to keep attending classes and get the treatment that I needed.” Lucas’ decision to continue in nursing school didn’t surprise those who know her.

“Perseverance and will come to mind when I think of Carissa,” said Robin Page, director of nursing education and clinical assistant professor of the College of Nursing in Round Rock. “She worked so hard, and I remember very clearly her telling me that she wanted to continue in the program, and work through some significant obstacles, because she was determined to succeed.”

The first line of chemotherapy did not deliver the results that were hoped for, so Lucas’s doctor prescribed a second chemotherapy regimen which would require her to be hospitalized at MD Anderson in Houston.

“I was told that I would need to spend three days in the hospital every three weeks for chemo, and that I would probably need to spend another month in the hospital for a stem cell transplant. At that point, it wasn’t realistic to keep trying to balance school and my treatments,” Lucas said. “So, I took a medical leave of absence from the program.”

Although Lucas’ accelerated nursing program took more than a year longer than she had planned to complete, she will graduate and soon begin her nursing practice in an emergency department for Baylor Scott & White.

“Carissa is an excellent example of what an Aggie nurse is made of.  She participated in extracurricular activities and councils, and stayed involved in service projects. Additionally, I have heard from numerous grateful patients and families praising her care and also from hospital staff impressed with her knowledge and clinical competence,” said Chelley Balke, clinical assistant professor in Round Rock. “Her illness never defined her, and it never limited what she could accomplish. Throughout her entire program, Carissa has demonstrated excellence and has been consistently at the top of her class in all arenas: academic, clinical, and service to the health science center and surrounding communities.”

Lucas is a member of the Sigma Tau Honor Society and was recently awarded the 2016 Aggie Spirit Award from the Texas A&M University Faculty Senate.

“A lot of people have said that I inspire them, and I appreciate the sentiment, but I never set out to do that. I just want to be the best nurse that I can be,” Lucas said. “I couldn’t let a diagnosis keep me from achieving my goal.”

— Diane L. Oswald

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