Briunna Wells, seated, a nursing student who works as a patient care assistant at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, recently had the chance to express her thanks to the nurses who cared for her when she was a patient in the CCU in 2019. The reunion came about after a chance meeting between Wells and one of the nurses, Sara Matthieu, right, at an exercise class. Also pictured from left to right are Amanda Hable, Jalean Larson and Justine Sylla.
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — For Sara Matthieu, a nurse in the Critical Care Unit (CCU) at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, seeing a former patient who is now doing well is gratifying. To meet one who was inspired to become a nurse herself and is now a co-worker is impossible to describe. But that is exactly what happened when Matthieu and Briunna Wells, a patient care assistant and senior nursing student, started to chat after an exercise class.
"For the longest time, I have wanted to be able to say thank you to everyone who took care of me," Wells says. "I can't describe the feeling that overcame me when I found out who Sara was. It was a feeling of joy and thankfulness."
Wells doesn't remember much from her time in the CCU in November 2019. Then a first-semester nursing student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Wells thought she had a cold. She was experiencing a high fever, chills and vomiting, but she was most worried about an upcoming final exam. As her symptoms worsened, she realized she needed to seek medical care.
"I knew something wasn't right," Wells says. "It was like a heavy weight on my chest, and breathing was difficult. My throat was tight and constricted." Wells asked her mother to drive her to the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. She expected to be back home and studying within a couple of hours, but instead, she was admitted to the CCU.
Wells had a rupture in her throat, called a pneumo mediastinum, which allowed air to build up around her heart and trachea, and caused her neck to swell. A CT scan also found atypical pneumonia in her right lung. Instead of heading home to study, Wells found herself signing papers that would allow her mother to make health care decisions in the event she had to be put on a ventilator.
"I just remember praying just to continue to breathe and just to make it," Wells says.
Matthieu remembers talking with Wells. Patients as young as she was — 23 at the time — are uncommon in the CCU.
"The thing I remember most was she said she had to take a test the next day, and she couldn't miss it or she would fail," Matthieu says. "I told her this was an acceptable reason to miss a test, and she was not going to get kicked out of nursing school."
Wells spent three days in the CCU and a couple of months after that recovering from her illness. She missed her final exam, but just as Matthieu promised, it was not the end of her career as a nursing student. With the help of her professors and instructors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Wells was able to catch up with her nursing education and is on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in nursing in December.
Wells says her experience in the hospital encouraged her to continue on her journey to become a nurse. She would like to work in an intensive care unit in emergency or trauma, where she feels she can make a real impact.
"I had struggled to find my purpose," Wells says. "I remember feeling this was the sign that I needed. I want to save lives. I want to give back to the people who took care of me. It's not just the patient. It's the family. It's family-centered care, and that's exactly what I got."
Wells had always wanted to thank those who cared for her in the hospital, but it was pure chance that gave her the opportunity. Talking with Matthieu after an exercise class at a local gym, the two discovered they both worked at Mayo. Then Wells shared her experience in the CCU. She talked about how thankful she was for everyone who cared for her, and she wished she could thank them. Matthieu was stunned to realize they had met before.
"It was a very, very humbling experience," Matthieu says. "To see this person, now in nursing school, and she just wants to say, 'Thank you," and realize she didn't even know she was talking about me."
As a surprise during Nurses Week, Matthieu arranged for Wells to meet the other three nurses who cared for her in the CCU, Amanda Hable, Justine Sylla and Jalean Larson, so Wells could finally thank them all for helping her through her ordeal.
Matthieu says she looks forward to seeing Wells fulfill her dream and become a nurse. Both say they won't lose track of each other again.
"This has turned into a lifelong relationship, a friendship that has been able to grow," Wells says.
Matthieu says nursing is a challenging job day in and day out, and sometimes nurses need to put their emotions aside to get the job done. But meeting Wells was a moving experience.
"I really want her to know that she had just as big an impact on me as I had on her," Matthieu says.
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Press ContactDan Lea