OB to Oncology: Her Heart Lights The Way

Kristine Brannock powers through each workday with a philosophy she calls “The Alice Trillin Effect.” Some time ago, Brannock read a column by Calvin Trillin where the New York Writers Hall of Fame inductee told about a dinner date with his wife Alice. The couple left an extra tip at the end of their date because Alice felt their waiter wasn’t having a good day. Alice Trillin, the mother of two daughters, died of complications from breast cancer in 2001.

Brannock figures if anyone would know about having a bad day it would be someone with cancer.

“It’s so remarkable to me that Alice Trillin recognized that maybe the waiter wasn’t doing a very good job because he had other things going on in his life that were distracting him – that were causing him great heartache or stress,” said Brannock, 53.  “This story taught me to slow down, to consider other angles, to think about what might be happening in the other people’s lives that caused them to act in a way I didn’t understand or approve of or like. This is the force that drives my care of patients.”

Brannock was in her mid 40s, divorced and raising three children when she decided to return to school for her nursing degree.

“I was working part time and reality set in. I needed to work full time and at my age I wanted to do something I love and could do forever. Nursing was it,” said Brannock. “It took a lot of time management. I relied on family and friends for help and it required some sacrifices. My friends will tell you I wasn’t that much fun because I studied all the time. There was a lot of guilt – if I was studying I wasn’t spending time with the kids and if I was spending time with the kids I wasn’t studying. It felt like a siege sometimes. People would say, ‘how do you do it?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know how I do it; I just do.’”

She passed her boards in 2015 and started work at Methodist Hospital in the OB unit. It was an early introduction to the Alice Trillin Effect. Brannock said she left her problems at the door because there were others who were having a bad day and she was there to help make it better.

“First off, it’s so humbling to work with the patient population I worked with at the maternity center,” said Brannock. “Those women didn’t have the best lives and they needed a soft place to land and a female role model. They were broken and I just wanted to give them a little extra love. . I just felt so lucky that I got to take care of them. I wanted them to know I believed in them.”

She pauses often to gather her thoughts and to dab at tears as she begins to tell about the patients who will forever be in her heart. She remembers one in particular – a young woman who was delivering her fourth child. She didn’t have custody of her other three children, and wouldn’t have custody of the fourth. She was battling an addiction.

“I will never forget this little girl as long as I live,” said Brannock. “She didn’t have any hope left. When she was discharged she got dressed in the filthy clothes she wore in and I put her in a cab that was dropping her off on the corner of the nearest drugstore where she needed to pick up her meds.  She was homeless and had literally been sleeping on the ground. She came in a mom and left alone.”  

As Brannock’s two oldest children entered college, leaving the youngest at home, she needed to be home evenings and weekends so she moved to an outpatient setting. She serves as a clinical nurse coordinator for the oncology/hematology and women’s clinics at Simon Cancer Center. 

“As a woman I’m always looking at ways to better myself – to learn and grow,” said Brannock. “And as a mother I want my kids to see that we can reinvent ourselves. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was in my mid 40s but I knew I wanted to do something that would be fulfilling.”

Oncology wasn’t something new to her. Her mom is a six-year lung cancer survivor.

“Oddly, walking into Simon Cancer Center felt like coming home. I use the experience with my mom to relate to my patients. I think about all those things – even the little things like how long a patient is sitting in the waiting room, or the follow up phone calls – they are so important,” said Brannock.  “This diagnosis is overwhelming. They don’t have a nice day. They’re not even having a good moment, so it makes it easy to remember how fortunate I am.”

For Brannock, every patient is like her first patient; her only patient.

“I see miracles happen here every day, and I see hope here every day. But I also see fear and sadness and death here. It is not lost on me that the absolute gift I’ve been given is to know these patients. I have had the privilege to give patients the best news – their numbers are good, they’re in remission, they don’t need chemo. And I’ve also had the privilege to be with these patients when they are getting the worst news – there’s nothing more we can do for them. I’ve been on the other side with my mom and it is incredibly humbling to be sitting on this side. Caring for these patients is an honor and one that I don’t take lightly. It’s precious.”

She again dabs at her eyes as she talks about encouraging other nurses to follow their dreams.

“I always tell my kids to do what you love. You may not figure it out until you are in your 40s, but follow those dreams. Wearing a red badge that says ‘RN’ is not something I take lightly,” said Brannock. “Outside of having my kids, it’s the single best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”  

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
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