The theme for Nurses Week this year is “You Make a Difference.” In our own Pranger ALS Clinic is a perfect example of someone who not only makes an incredible difference in the lives of so many ALS patients and their families but also impacts her coworkers and how effectively are clinic operates.
“Sandy Lemkin truly is the nerve center of our clinic,” explains Pranger ALS Clinic Director Stephen Goutman, M.D., M.S. “Her tireless passion to care for and support those suffering from a diagnosis such as ALS serves as inspiration to myself, our team, and countless people affected by the disease. She very much makes a difference.”
We sat down with Pranger ALS Clinic Clinical Care Coordinator Sandy Lemkin, BBA, BSN, RN, to learn more about what makes this human dynamo tick.
What inspired you to become a nurse?
Initially, I got a business degree and worked for a number of years in the automotive industry and at IBM. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t feeling fulfilled and didn’t want to “just push papers.” I wanted to help people.
My college roommate had become a nurse and seeing her in action really inspired me. I decided I was going back to school to get my nursing degree and help people.
What do you like best about what you do?
There are so many reasons. I love multitasking. I like the challenge of having to do a lot of things at one time, which was what made me successful in business as well. As a nurse, you definitely have a lot of things going on all at the same time.
Also, I love working with a team and helping to lead the team. We have an incredible group at the Pranger ALS Clinic.
Then there is the helping people part that I mentioned brought me to the nursing profession. I like developing processes and programs that help patients, especially terminal patients, like those with ALS, navigate their care – providing them with education, information, and support to go through a tough journey like ALS.
What do you wish everybody realized or understood about nursing?
Generally, when you tell people you are a nurse, they'll ask something like: “What hospital do you work at?” What I want people to recognize – and this is what I tell nursing students or people who are thinking about going into nursing – is that nursing is not just about being at a patient’s bedside. For instance, Jayna Duell, our ALS Clinical Research Coordinator, collects data and monitors research projects in our ALS clinical studies program. Nurses can be so many things. People should know that we encompass many aspects of health care, not just direct patient care.
You are the Pranger ALS Clinic Clinical Coordinator. What does that mean?
The team likes to consider me as the one who steers the ship. I am the main point of contact for patients and, as I explain to patients, I have a whole team that supports me in case I don’t have the answer to their questions. So, really it is navigating care for a patient and navigating their program to make sure that their care needs are being met in the appropriate amount of time.
How long have you been working in the Pranger ALS Clinic? What brought you here?
It has been 24 years now at Michigan Medicine, but I have been at the Pranger ALS Clinic for seven. My anniversary is actually this month. Before, I was a research project manager in Cardiovascular. I saw the posting and missed being in Neurology (I worked for seven years in neurogenetics), plus it was a clinical care coordinator position, which was a new challenge for me.
What did you miss about Neurology?
I really missed the patient population. Neurologic issues can be a gray area of health care because there is so much we don’t know or don’t know how to fix. So much to be discovered. I wanted to be back helping these patients, who are hard to diagnose or who are facing a difficult diagnosis, like ALS. Right now, we don’t know how to successfully treat a lot of neurologic conditions.
Patients have to learn to live with these conditions, whereas in other departments —Cardiovascular, Orthopedics, etc. — you can usually fix something. This is not true here, so the patients are left with a big challenge.
This is what I wanted to be a part of.
This month is ALS Awareness Month. What do you wish that everyone knew about the disease?
First and foremost, I wish people understood that ALS is different for every patient. This is something I try to explain to patients when they are first diagnosed.
One person’s experience with ALS is not going to be another’s. That’s why we approach every ALS patient in a different way, based on their needs and that of their loved ones and caregivers. It’s really an individualized diagnosis and should not be stereotyped to think that one person’s journey with ALS is going to be the same as another’s.
What advice would you give someone who knows a patient with ALS? How can they best support that person and their families?
Don’t wait for them to ask for help, offer help. They really need it, and they are scared to ask for it because they don’t want to burden anyone. Just reach out to them to say, “How can I help you? Can I make any meals? Do you need me to come over and watch your loved one or run errands?” Just offer help, and don’t wait for them to reach out.
It’s also Nurses Week, with International Nurses Day coming up this weekend. How can we better support nurses?
First and foremost, just say “thank you” and appreciate what we do. I think that a lot of people recognize that we are the ones steering their care. We work side by side with doctors, so patients and their loved ones should appreciate what we are telling them. We are backed by physicians and other care team members, and the answers or care we are providing are coming from them as well.
What do you like best about working in the Pranger ALS Clinic?
I love our entire team. It really is amazing how well we all work together. Everyone who works with us really has to want to be there because it’s such a hard diagnosis. Most of us have been working together for a very long time. The dedication of our team and our incredible patient population is what I like best about working here.