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When a nurse becomes an ER patient

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Nelson’s experience as patient rather than caregiver provided a new perspective on the value of care offered in the AdventHealth ER.

Tammy Nelson has been an oncology nurse for more than 40 years including 12 combined at AdventHealth Altamonte Springs and AdventHealth Orlando. Several months following heart surgery for a pacemaker in 2021, she made an unexpected visit to the ER.

“I started feeling strange and ignored my symptoms,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want to bother anyone at work and thought I could push through the vague chest pain. When I returned home that evening, I realized that was a mistake. I collapsed and an ambulance took me to the ER at AdventHealth Orlando.”

Dr. Jorge Suarez, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at AdventHealth who cared for Nelson, emphasized being proactive with ER visits especially regarding heart issues.

“If your primary physician tells you to go to the ER, do it: Don’t wait,” Suarez said. “If you are experiencing chest pains, go to the ER. If you have neck pain, arm pain or indigestion that seems out of the ordinary, especially if you are aging, go to the ER. You may be having a heart attack.”


Suarez said the tendency to self-diagnose, often coupled with fear of going to the hospital, leads to larger health issues and sometimes death in patients who skip the ER visit.

Nelson went from the ER to emergency surgery for hemorrhagic pericarditis, inflammation of a thin membrane around the heart, which causes chest pain. Nelson later learned she had 300 milliliters of fluid around her heart, which caused it to constrict.

“Go to the ER,” Suarez said. “We can only help you if we see you and diagnose your specific needs. ER leads to advanced care and it saves lives, especially with cardio issues. There is no time to waste.”

“It was scary because I was aware of everything happening around me, yet unable to talk. That was terrifying,” Nelson said. “An amazing ER nurse cared for me. She held my hand, whispered words of comfort, and cared for me until I was transferred to the Cardiac ICU and then to PCU.

“When you’re used to being a caregiver, it’s hard to be a receiver,” she said. “My PCU nurses Nichole and Brandy talked to me like a real person and asked about my family. You could tell that this was more than just a job for them – they cared about me and my well-being.

Nelson’s experience placed her on the other side of health care – as patient rather than caregiver – and provided a new perspective on the value of care offered in emergency situations inside and out of the AdventHealth ER.

“I’d rather be a nurse than a patient, and now I have a new lease on life,” she said. “In my career I’ve cared for oncology patients with stage four cancer, and I almost lost my life before them. Tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone, and I’ve learned now to always be on the lookout for things you can do to brighten someone’s day.”

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