Transplant nurse works through the night

Jennifer Whitehead is known by patients for her calming ways – some things she learned at her mother’s bedside.

The patient was in severe pain. Medicine had been administered and every effort was made to make her comfortable. And then Jennifer Whitehead had an idea.

She started a water fight with another nurse using syringes. The distraction did the trick. The patient began to laugh. Laughter isn’t always the best medicine for the patients in Whitehead’s care but her intuition usually steers her in the right direction.

“She is the best. Without her I don’t think I would have been able to get through my recovery,” said Sarah Henderson Powell, a two-time pancreas transplant recipient.

As she begins her night shift, Whitehead looks through the patient list and addresses some of the more familiar ones by a nickname. Some of the patients she has seen more often than others.

“Liver, pancreas, and multi-v patients go straight to ICU. With kidney patients, we’re constantly in their rooms – every hour drawing labs, checking their urine, so we have lots of time to talk,” said Whitehead. “I like to ask them, ‘what do you need from me?’ Each patient has different needs and I want to set them up for the best possible success with their transplant. Do they need me to hold their hand; encourage them; give them sarcasm, or make them laugh? “

Whitehead remembers talking through the night with a college student who had multiple questions. It was all in a day’s work for this caregiver who began her pre-requisites for nursing school at the age of 35.

She started her career with IU Health working as a secretary in OR at Methodist for nearly 10 years.

“One of the girls encouraged me to enter the cohort program for my associate degree in nursing. I had been pondering it so I jumped on board,” said Whitehead, who also has an undergraduate degree in business and worked for years in sales positions.

She was in her first nursing school lecture when her mother, Anne Christian was undergoing surgery for a traumatic brain injury.

“The first nine weeks of the semester I ran between class, the lab, and the hospital. I was her primary caregiver for years and learned things about nursing at her bedside,” said Whitehead. “The whole reason I became a nurse is I was watching other nurses do amazing things. I haven’t been in that hospital bed but I’ve been in the chair next to the bed. I know how that feels.” She graduated from nursing school in May of 2014, turned 40 in July and her mother passed in August.

The next Christmas Whitehead worked to keep her mind occupied. It was tough but through that holiday shift she was reaffirmed of her purpose.

“I took care of a young girl who came in with abdominal pain. She was being evaluated for an intestinal transplant. Her parents were divorced and took shifts visiting her. She was terrified and I sensed that I was a calming presence for her family. When I came in for my shift Christmas night her dad had left me a cookie and a note of thanks. I felt I had made the right choice just being there for someone who was scared.”

More about Whitehead:

  • She is married to Steve Whitehead. Fun fact: Jennifer is preparing to go on her third mission trip to the Ukraine this summer. To help support her trip, her husband makes and sells homemade salsa and guacamole.
  • They have one son Anthony Joseph “AJ” who is 16.
  • What surprises Whitehead the most about her career in nursing: “The connections I have with my patients which is stupid because I watched how close my mom got to her nurses and I’m still connected to some of her nurses.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email