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Blugold overcomes challenges to pursue career in nursing

| Judy Berthiaume

If it is true that grit — a combination of passion and persistence — is a key to success, Briunna Wells is going to go far in the health care field as well as in life.

After all, Briunna, now a junior nursing major at UW-Eau Claire, had to apply to the highly competitive nursing program three times before she was admitted in fall 2019.

Midway through her first semester as a nursing major, she became so ill that she had to be hospitalized for several days and couldn’t attend classes the last weeks of the semester.

Then, just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic closed campus, pushing all her nursing classes and clinicals to a virtual format, a challenge given the face-to-face teaching and learning that is a hallmark of nursing education.

Despite all those obstacles, Briunna is on track to graduate with her nursing cohort in December 2021 and already is planning for what comes after she earns her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

A passion for nursing

Briunna was just 12 years old when her mother became severely ill, giving her a peek at what it was like to care for someone else.

“I learned to be her caretaker and, although many members of my family are nurses, taking care of my mom is what influenced me the most and helped me decide to become a nurse,” Briunna says.

Both her parents served in the military, so Briunna moved a lot while growing up. She was born in California, spent part of her childhood in Florida and graduated from high school in North Carolina.

Several years ago, after her mother retired from the military, Briunna and her mom, Shelley Wells, decided it was time to reconnect with extended family, so they moved to Eau Claire to be close to them.

“I moved to Wisconsin to finally live close to family,” Briunna says. “Because we moved growing up, we didn't have the opportunity to spend the weekend at my grandparents or grow up with our cousins, which I have a lot of. This was my first chance to do those things and I took it.”

After settling in Eau Claire, both mother and daughter decided it was the right time and they were in the right place to pursue long-considered careers in nursing.

Shelley went first, earning her associate of nursing degree, and then, through UW-Eau Claire’s RN to BSN completion program, earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2018. Shelley currently works for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Briunna followed a slightly different path, hitting a few more bumps on her way to becoming a nurse.

After she didn’t get into UW-Eau Claire’s nursing program the first two times she applied, Briunna began exploring potential alternate careers. She took several business classes, but quickly realized that business wasn’t the right fit for her.

She knew then that her heart and her passion are in nursing.

“So, I focused on the undergraduate courses I would need to obtain my BSN,” Briunna says. “I applied to nursing again, hoping the third time is a charm. I finally received my acceptance letter and started the nursing program in the fall of 2019.”

Finding support during a health crisis

She was just months into her first semester as a nursing major when she hit the next bump in the road.

In November 2019, Briunna became extremely ill, with symptoms ranging from difficulty breathing to a high fever and a cough. Eventually, breathing became so difficult that she had to go to the emergency room.

There, doctors determined that she had pneumonia, had ruptured her airway, and had a pneumomediastinum, a rare condition where the air sacs in her lungs ruptured and allowed air to leak around her heart. She spent five days in the intensive care unit and weeks at home recovering.

Given the severity of her medical issues, Briunna could not attend classes the rest of the fall 2019 semester, focusing instead on regaining her mental and physical health.

UW-Eau Claire’s extraordinary nursing faculty and staff made it possible for her to continue in the program despite the difficult circumstances, Briunna says.

“No one will ever understand how grateful I am to all of my professors for how they helped me when I was ill,” Briunna says. “They worked closely with me around the clock to make sure I stayed on course. They also consistently reminded me that resting and healing should be my top priority.

“We came up with a game plan that would allow me to complete all remaining assignments in an appropriate manner, as well as my finals. They were so understanding and supportive.”

Dr. Ann Aschenbrenner, assistant professor of nursing, and Dr. Der-Fa Lu, associate professor of nursing, were especially helpful in developing the plan that allowed her to complete the semester without falling behind.

“They may not be aware, but they helped me decide that I'd like to teach at a university and become a clinical instructor one day,” Briunna says. “I hope to impact students like they did with me.”

Embracing nursing education

While Briunna was still in her first semester in the nursing program when she became ill, she already had connected with fellow nursing majors as well as with faculty and staff.

“Some of the best parts about being in the nursing program at UWEC is making lifelong friends and connections, having unique opportunities for research and the amazing nursing instructors,” Briunna says. “I'm also excited for the cultural immersion experiences that the UWEC nursing program offers to students.”

She says those connections made all the difference when she was trying to stay on track to graduation despite having been so sick.

Briunna also is collaborating with students and faculty on a research project that focuses on promoting civility within nursing education and practice. The goal, she says, is to help future nurses understand civility and how to mitigate and manage negative behaviors.

During the spring semester, Briunna served as a peer mentor for new nursing students, something she was eager to do because a peer mentor had made such a difference in her life during her first semester.

“I wanted to mentor students because I faced challenges as a new nursing student,” Briunna says, noting mentoring also gave her an opportunity to strengthen her leadership skills. “Peer mentors impacted my first semester positively. They helped me better my skills and gave me tips that helped me with studying and taking exams.”

The connections and opportunities in and out of the classroom are part of what makes UW-Eau Claire’s nursing program so strong, Briunna says.

Studying nursing during a pandemic

In the spring, COVID-19 added additional obstacles to her college journey, forcing her to find new ways to manage her time and keep herself motivated as she had to navigate the new virtual learning landscape, Briunna says, adding that she also was laid off from her retail job when stores closed, making it more difficult to pay for college.

“It all was challenging, but everything worked out,” Briunna says. “The nursing faculty were very accommodating and did an excellent job of working with us. Nursing school is hard on its own, but moving courses online brings even more new challenges because the material and coursework is different than many other kinds of classes.”

UW-Eau Claire’s nursing faculty are so inspiring that Briunna now hopes to someday teach at the college level herself.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in December 2021, Briunna plans to apply for UW-Eau Claire’s Doctor of Nursing practice program. If all goes as planned, she will begin the doctoral program in fall 2022 and complete it in three years.

While there have been many unexpected twists and turns in her college journey, the challenges will likely make her an even better nurse, Briunna says.

“I saw nursing through new eyes,” Briunna says of being in the hospital. “Nurses give medication, but they also have the opportunity to make a huge impact in someone’s life. When I was in the ICU, the nurses listened to my concerns, helped me create a game plan to better myself and assisted me in completing things I’d normally be able to do on my own.

“The nurses coached me through a time that was my biggest challenge. As a nurse, I hope to impact other people's lives in such a positive way. I think my future looks bright.” 

Photo caption: Briunna Wells has overcome many obstacles in her journey to becoming a nurse.