Rachel Michaelson had just passed the test required for her private pilot's license. It was the first step toward her dream of becoming a commercial pilot.
Twenty minutes later, that dream came crashing down.
"We were having a celebration at the hangar, and some balloons had floated up to the ceiling," Michaelson says. "I climbed up an 8-foot ladder to get them, lost my balance, and fell and fractured my skull."
Soon the 17-year-old was in the air again — this time, in a Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service emergency helicopter. After a short stay in the neuro ICU at Mayo Clinic, Michaelson walked out to applause from the team that had cared for her.
"The nurses were so nice to me and so proud of me," she says. "When I left, someone told me I got a second chance at life, and I should make the most of it."
That second chance would involve finding a second dream.
"My motto is, 'I'm not just treating you as a patient, I'm treating you as my patient.'"Rachel Michaelson
"Due to FAA regulations, my injury limited my ability to advance my career in aviation," Michaelson says. "I was devastated."
But not for long. The end of one dream became the beginning of another: Michaelson decided to become a nurse.
"I wanted to be with people at their worst time, when they were at their most vulnerable, like people had been there for me," says Michaelson, now a cardiovascular surgery nurse and RN ECMO specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. ECMO — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — is the most advanced form of life support available, taking over the work of the heart and lungs, or both, while a person heals.
"The accident was a blessing in disguise," Michaelson says. "Nursing is my calling."
That calling goes beyond providing medical care. Michaelson brings something extra to her encounters with patients.
"My motto is, 'I'm not just treating you as a patient, I'm treating you as my patient,'" she says. "You may not remember my name, but you'll remember I brought you comfort and made you feel safe and loved."
That was on full display recently during a COVID patient's last hours. Michaelson and the man had become close during his weeks of hospitalization, bonding over a shared sense of humor, shared hobbies (hunting and fishing), and a shared connection to the military. Her patient was a veteran, and Michaelson's husband had spent 12 years in the Army National Guard.
When it became clear the man was dying, Michaelson arranged for her husband, Jake Michaelson, to come to the hospital and give the patient a final salute.
"Jake came in his dress blues," Michaelson says. He also had a flag that was given to the patient. "Words can't describe the moment of that final salute."
Afterward, Michaelson said goodbye to the man she'd grown close to.
"He held my hand and whispered, 'Be not afraid,' which was something I'd often say to him," Michaelson says. "He had a lot of anxiety and expressed fear of dying. I would remind him not to be afraid, that I was watching, and we would take care of him. He passed shortly after he said those words to me."
To honor and remember her patient, Michaelson now has the words 'Be not afraid' tattooed on her foot.
She has a different memento from another special patient: a string bracelet.
"This patient had a difficult life, and it wasn't until she came to Mayo that she was truly cared for," Michaelson says. "Her family would say they were going to come visit her, but they'd never show up."
One day, the patient was making bracelets. Michaelson sat down next to her bed and learned how to make the colorful creations.
"We spent the afternoon making bracelets and sharing stories," Michaelson says. "She planned to give the bracelets to her grandkids, but they never came."
When the woman passed, Michaelson kept the first bracelet they had made together to remember her by.
"Many people come to Mayo for their last hope," Michaelson says. "We can't always save them. If we can't, I try to give them a beautiful death story."
That's what she did for the woman whose 16-year-old son was coming to see his mother near the end of her life. Michaelson and fellow nurse Mara Beernink did the woman's hair and painted her nails. "We wanted her to look like a mom," she says.
And it's what she did for a young man about to be taken off life support. "His mom wanted him dressed in a tuxedo when he died," Michaelson says. "She wanted him to be dressed to impress God."
"I thought I was going to do one thing, but someone up above thought I was meant to do something else."Rachel Michaelson
Michaelson, Beernink and Diane Richardson, a nurse practitioner, found ways to maneuver the tux around the wires and tubes keeping their patient alive.
"The way I treat patients aligns with Mayo's philosophy that the needs of the patient come first," Michaelson says. "I experienced that care when I was here as a 17-year-old, depressed, scared and in pain."
She's no longer so sure her accident was an accident
"Everything happens for a reason," she says. "I thought I was going to do one thing, but someone up above thought I was meant to do something else."
Her patients would agree.