Fusing Hard Science and the Human Touch, Former Cell Biologist Shifts to Patient Care

April 13, 2012 — Before nursing school, Sue Kiley squinted through microscopes. Coaxed cell clusters to grow. Studied myeloid leukemia, obstructive uropathy and infectious diseases. Big topics in tiny petri dishes.

Her work as a cell biologist took her to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. It took her to London's Imperial Cancer Research Fund. It took her to Lake Placid, N.Y., to study breast cancer with University of Pennsylvania researchers. And finally, it brought her to Charlottesville where she studied kidney abnormalities with some of the University of Virginia Medical Center's top researchers.

But through it all, Kiley – who has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Clarkson University – found herself longing for something, well, more human.

"Research stopped having the same meaning for me," Kiley said. "For a long time, you can justify your research as being worthwhile, which it is. But the rewards are not direct. I wanted to do something more engaged, social, so that I could give back more directly."

Kiley will graduate with a master of science in nursing May 20. She'll take her nursing license exam July 4 and hopes to work in oncology. In the meantime, she's shadowing on the medical intensive care unit at U.Va. to see if it's a good fit.

After her second application to U.Va. School of Nursing (her first try, Kiley jokes, she hadn't completed all of the prerequisites in anatomy and physiology), she entered the university's Clinical Nurse Leader program for students and professionals who've already earned at least a bachelor's degree in another field. While the program's pre-entry coursework includes courses like anatomy and statistics, it was during her battery of clinical rotations – always done one-on-one with a nurse preceptor – that Kiley knew she could fuse her scientific training with her desire to interact with patients.

As part of their two-year training, master's-entry students are exposed to a variety of settings through their rotations while being trained as advanced nurse generalists. Kiley has so far worked in medical-surgical, psychiatric, pediatric and intensive care units, as well as hospice and, most recently, geriatric and palliative care at U.Va. Medical Center.

The geriatric and palliative care rotation has honed her interest in and experience with compassionate care and end-of-life issues. That, in turn, provided her professional direction, urging her toward a future in oncology or an intensive care unit, where age, infirmity, death and chronic illness are a constant.

Rather than being repelled by the difficulty of such environments, she welcomes it. "I've been with death, and feel it's a very sacred moment," Kiley said. "People don't realize that if you don't make choices in advance – that if you don't talk about it – the default is ending up in an ICU. Often, families who go that route … come out traumatized, with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."

With families, Kiley said, "We carefully go through the whys, and what it all means."

Kiley's science background has given her a foundation for care, too, as she ushers patients and their families through some of the most difficult, heart-rending decisions of their lives. She explains the science behind their ailments as few others can do: from real research experience.

"For me, my science background definitely informs my nursing, and helps me understand what's going on a lot easier," she said. "I have more tools. We always say, 'You meet the patient where they are.' I have a lot of tools to draw on, in terms of explaining what's happening to them."

"I've loved all of my nursing education," added Kiley, whose sister and niece are also nurses. "It takes science in a different, very human direction."

– by Christine Phelan Kueter