One Family, Three Duke Nurses

Source: Duke University School of Nursing

The month of May is turning out to be a big month for the Dimsdale family. In May 2012, Allison Dimsdale, DNP ’12, MSN ’07, BFA, earned her doctorate from Duke University School of Nursing (DUSON) on the same day that her elder daughter, Callie Dimsdale, MSN ’12, DNP, BSN, earned her DUSON master’s. In May of this year, Allison’s younger daughter, Hannah Dimsdale Johnson, MSN ’17, BSN, became the third Dimsdale to earn her MSN from DUSON.

Today, all three Dimsdales work at Duke. Allison is a cardiovascular nurse practitioner, clinical associate at DUSON and director of PDC Advanced Practice, while both daughters work at Duke University Hospital: Callie as a cardiothoracic ICU nurse practitioner and Hannah in the Duke Cardiac ICU.

“We’re very pro all things Duke nursing,” Allison said. “That’s just part of the fabric of our family.”

Unlike her daughters, Allison didn’t have any medical professionals in her family to look to for guidance or inspiration. In fact, nursing was a second career for her. When Callie was just ten years old, Allison enrolled in Watts School of Nursing; Hannah was six. As Allison navigated her nursing education and began her first nursing positions, both girls were watching her, absorbing the passion and enthusiasm she showed toward her developing career. Into a family with no nursing or medical lineage, the seeds were planted.

“When my mom was in nursing school, she took me to her classes,” Callie remembered. “I have pieces of art I created when I was waiting for her to finish anatomy class one day.” A classic, she said, is one that says, “There are 206 bons in the body,” noting her six-year-old spelling of “bones.”

Hannah can’t deny the impact of watching her mother and then later her older sister pursue nursing. “My mom used to tell us stories all the time at the kitchen table about patients that she saw and how sick they were and how she helped them,” she said. “From a young age, both Callie and I just wanted to make a difference like that and care for people in their most vulnerable state.”

While Allison said she has always enjoyed caring for people, growing up in Boston, she wanted nothing more than to be a classical musician. She studied flute at Northwestern University, studied with musicians from the Boston and Chicago Symphonies and followed a Norwegian flute instructor to the University of Texas at Austin, where she graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Allison was a professional musician for years, but the desire to help others was always there. “When I was a little kid, my sister had her tonsils taken out, and I got to wait on her hand and foot, and I just loved it,” she said. “I think I always knew I wanted to care for people in that way.”

Allison remembers the day she decided to make the career change. “I was sitting in the concert hall for concert after concert,” she said. “I got to one really big performance, and I looked at my watch, and I thought, ‘I wonder if they have our paychecks tonight?’ And I thought, ‘Oh wow. What has happened to me? I’ve lost my passion for this.’”

As she began her nursing studies, Allison was drawn to cardiology. When she was 15, her father suffered a massive heart attack and was hospitalized for a year. After earning her diploma at Watts, Allison took a position at Duke and spent eight years in the Cardiac ICU. “Still to this day, that is the favorite job I’ve ever had,” she said.

For Allison, caring for people who are in complex heart failure and facing ultimate decisions is difficult but rewarding. “When it’s an end-of-life situation, you as the care nurse can be sure that there are no regrets for that family,” she said. “That is such an honor. As a nurse practitioner, I provide care for them as a member of their provider team, and it’s equally rewarding.”

She also felt personally connected to those critically ill patients. “I know what it felt like to be in the waiting room of the ICU when kids weren’t allowed back, and I didn’t know what was going on,” she said, noting that her father survived but died years later of heart disease. “When I had the opportunity as an ICU nurse to get down on my knees on the floor and talk to a 10 year old whose dad had just been Life Flighted in, because I knew what he needed to hear, that was full circle for me.”

For Callie, a career in health care was always on the table. She debated becoming a physical therapist but decided nursing offered more options and opportunities for growth. Then, her freshman year in college, she had her own health scare.

“One day I got into an argument with my roommate, and I had chest pains.” She was taken to student health and was given an EKG. Callie had Long QT syndrome, a potentially fatal arrhythmia. At 18 years old, she had a pacemaker/ defibrillator implanted at Duke. “All my health care has been there (at Duke),” she said. “So I had a lot of exposure to the multi-disciplinary team — to nurses, to nurse clinicians, to providers, to educators, everybody. I became really interested in knowing more about the heart and about patients who were not unlike me.”

Hannah’s route was a little different. “I tried to rebel,” she said. She chose to study marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “I thought I just wanted to live on a boat and perform maritime research.” By the second semester of her freshman year, she couldn’t deny the calling: she started taking nursing courses, and she transferred the next year to Eastern Carolina University (ECU). “I didn’t want to go to ECU because that’s where Callie went,” Hannah said, joking about following in her older sister’s footsteps. “Then I opened my eyes wider and realized that nursing is an incredible profession that offers endless rewarding opportunities.”

A cardiac patient moving through the Duke health system might cross paths with multiple Dimsdales, starting with Allison, who works in the cardiology clinic and frequently admits patients to the hospital. It’s happened before with Callie. “I would admit a patient, she would take care of them, then the patient would come back to see me and say, ‘You took care of me at the hospital!’” Allison said, noting that they all look very much alike. “I would say, ‘No — but I bet I know who that was.’”

While Allison has the first contact with the patient in the outpatient setting, Hannah might work with a patient who is getting ready for surgery in the ICU . Post-surgery, in the Critical Care Unit, Callie would then help that patient recover.

“We all work in different areas of cardiology,” Callie said. “So we like to discuss how a patient moves through the system, from seeing my mom in outpatient, to having chest pain and going to Hannah’s unit, to needing surgery and coming to me.”

The three women often talk about their patients who are in different stages of cardiac care and encourage each other to check in on them. “My mom will text me, ‘This is my favorite patient’ — because every patient is her favorite — ‘can you drop by and say hi?’ And I will totally do that,” Callie said. “It’s such a big place that sometimes a patient who sees a friendly face (and we all have kind of the same face) will find that comforting.”

“We have a pretty special relationship,” Hannah said. “I really like my sister and my mom. It’s nice that we have the same profession, but we bring different things to the table.” Hannah notes they are all laid-back “people people.” She describes her mother as nurturing and loving. Her sister is the go-getter who likes the frenetic and fast-paced Cardiothoracic ICU, and Hannah sees herself as one who can expertly manage the nursing role but also has intuition about what patients need emotionally as well as physically. “I like to look at the situation and find out what is going on and how people are feeling about it, which is why I am considering going into palliative care in order to focus on respectful end-of-life care for patients and their families.”

Callie said she and her sister try to see each other during their shifts. “If we’re working on the same day, we’ll try to sneak away and have a coffee break together,” she said. “We always sit at a window on the seventh floor that looks out over the Life Flight helicopters. That’s our little spot.” “After all is said and done, it’s very personally fulfilling, and it makes us all very happy to serve people, especially at Duke where we have the resources to give people everything they need.”

When they’re not working, the three Dimsdale nurses like to sit on the deck at Allison and husband Todd’s lake house and talk. While Todd works in IT at Quintiles, his daughters say he’s basically an honorary nurse because he has heard so much shop talk over the years. No matter what, he’s always going to be in good hands, Allison said. “We joke that Todd is going to be very well cared for in his old age.” Just like all of the patients of the Dimsdale Duke nursing family.