“The things that happen here are phenomenal.”

Alyce Columbia, UWHC Nurse Care Team Leader, Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery,
Heart and Lung Transplant

Alyce Columbia’s busy life and career have taken her across the state and the country, and the nursing positions she’s held in the field have been equally diverse. From independent and assisted living environments to caring for people with AIDS to her current work in intensive care, she’s pretty much seen it all.

“I like the patient population. I like to work with people,” says Columbia, a nurse care team leader for cardiac and thoracic surgery, and heart and lung transplant at UW Hospital and Clinics.

For the last seven years Columbia has worked with very sick people in “a very fast-paced place,” she says, where in any given week her team of sixty nurses might see multiple heart surgeries and one, two, even three sets of lung transplants. “The doctors—they’re all incredible,” she adds. “The things that happen here are phenomenal.” Columbia holds the nursing staff she leads and trains in the same high regard. “The caliber of the individuals who work there—amazing.”

The unit also equips patients with ventricular assisted devices/heart pumps while they await life-saving transplants. Columbia remembers one patient in particular, an eighteen-year-old teenager from Beloit being treated for cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle that can be fatal. “It’s the one that pulled my heartstrings,” she says. The man, young and poor, was in and out of the hospital, one scary episode after another. Eventually he was put on the VAD, waiting for an organ donation.

“It was his bridge to transplant,” says Columbia, recalling a hospitalization episode when she thought the man might die. Fortunately, his mother and younger sister were able to be there with him, but it was an evening shift, and the nights can be long and difficult when a patient is gravely ill. To ease the tension, Columbia brought in movies and popped popcorn. “We had a slumber party,” she says. Eventually, the patient received a heart transplant and went home to live his life. For Columbia, it makes her high-intensity, sixty-hour workweek worthwhile.

“When they come back after a period of time and they don’t look anything like they did when they came in, and you participated in that—that’s the reward.”

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