The first sign that something might be wrong — really wrong — with Dawn Hucke's daughter, Danielle, came at the end of an MRI exam. Danielle had been having shooting pain in her arm, and a series of appointments had led to the MRI. "When we left the exam, the tech showered Danielle with gifts," recalls Dawn, then an internal auditor at Mayo Clinic. "I looked in the tech's eyes and saw a tear." More tests and procedures quickly followed, including a surgery on Danielle's 10th birthday. Within a week, she would be diagnosed with cancer, and Dawn would find herself experiencing Mayo Clinic from a new perspective — that of the mother of a patient.
"It's hard to explain the feeling of loss, of vulnerability you feel in that position," she says now, more than 10 years later. "It's overwhelming."
For Dawn, it was also life changing. After Danielle finished treatment — which included 12 grueling rounds of chemotherapy, five and a half weeks of radiation, and 167 nights in the hospital — Dawn returned to work with a new goal. "I told my boss that I loved Audit, but some day, somehow, I wanted to work more closely with patients," she says. "I felt a stirring."
That stirring led Dawn back to school, where she earned a master's degree in organizational leadership. Today, she's putting what she learned in the classroom — and at her daughter's bedside — to use as director of Patient Experience at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. "It's more than a job for me," she says. "It's a life purpose. I feel like I'm giving back."
Dawn tells us that the part of her job that's closest to her heart involves helping staff better connect with patients through "empathetic communication" — a process that involves listening deeply and attempting to understand an experience from a patient's perspective. That can be hard to do, Dawn admits. "It's hard to understand if you haven't been there," she says. "When you're a patient, you're scared, you're sleep deprived, you've lost all sense of control."
Though she doesn't often talk about her own family's experiences, Dawn says they're never far from her mind. She remembers Danielle's treatments and setbacks; the long, sleepless nights and days filled with worry; existing in "survival mode." But Dawn also remembers the kindness and compassion of many caregivers the family met on their journey. High on that list are the surgeon who offered to operate on a day other than Danielle's birthday; the anesthesiologist who bought a teddy bear to give Danielle after that surgery; the chaplain who prayed with the family; the nurse who stood behind Danielle, arms wrapped around her, on the day she received her cancer diagnosis. "Good can come from difficult times," Dawn says.
And one day soon, Danielle may be providing some of that good herself. She's just started college — and plans to become a nurse.
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