Nhu Tran

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To me, those are the biggest challenges, and overcoming them is just reflecting, again, on what makes me happy as a nurse, what reminds me why I do this.

Nhu Tran

It's the smiles. Always the smiles.

The bright eyes of wonder and innocence staring back at her, the crinkly nose and unfiltered, unadulterated, toothless, giggly smiles that only infants can offer, as if tickled by some unseen, invisible feather. In any case, that's what Nhu Tran thinks of when she sometimes questions why she strayed from the path of her pharmacist parents and became a neonatal nurse.

Of course, straying from normal paths and closely following very long, ascending ones are things Nhu, RN,MS,MSN, a neonatal CCRN who is now working on her Ph D at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), does well but more on that later.

Getting Started

Nhu, who enjoys what little there is of her free time being fussed over by her four-legged children — that would be her dogs, Benny, a Chihuahua mix, and Buddha, a black pug — enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) fully intending to become a pharmacist, like her parents.

“But something was pulling at me,” she recalled. “I wanted to have a good career and to be able to help people, and that was something I thought I wanted to do, but I just found I wanted to do something else.

“I certainly didn’t want to be a nurse when I was a kid. I wanted to be Wonder Woman.”

So the golden lasso — or whatever that thing is — pulled her to nursing. She graduated from USC in 2001, staying to earn a master’s in nurse leadership and administration in 2003. “But I knew I really didn’t want to do nursing administration,” she said.

So she went to work, but going back to school, she says, was always in the back of her mind. Or maybe at the front.

“Yeah, I think I always knew I wanted to go back to school. I think I’m kind of a bookworm.”

So, naturally, being a USC double-grad, she decided on crosstown-rival UCLA to continue her studies, this time pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing. She plans on specializing in behavioral research. Her dissertation was something called cerebral autoregulation, which sounds like something the lay person would suffer just trying to figure out what the heck that is.

“I know, I know,” she laughs, when the whole USC-UCLA opposition is brought up, recognizing that she’s right in the middle of a big rivalry, having attended both institutions now. “I get a lot of grief about it. I’m so conflicted.

“But it’s been an incredible opportunity. I love research so much and helping care for people.”

The Joy of Nursing

While Nhu may have discovered nursing almost accidentally, she has no doubts about what she does and why.

“I found nursing — or maybe it found me — and I fell in love with it,” she confessed. I loved it from the beginning. I have been in the NICU for the 12 years, and it’s incredible. There’s not much that can compare with it.”

And it doesn’t take much to remind her that she made the right career choice.

“It’s pretty simple, really,” she said. “I love seeing babies smile. I’m not at the bedside as much now as before since I’m studying, but there is nothing to compare with it. It always makes my day to see that little grin.”

A Christmas Miracle

Many nurses have a moment, above all others. A defining — or even sustaining — moment in their career that confirms or re-affirms the belief in what they do, or what they’re doing. Nhu’s wasn’t a bolt of lightning.

More like a tender mercy.

“There was a baby in the NICU,” she recalled. “The pregnant mother had had a transplant and because of that had needed to take anti-rejection meds, which we knew would impact the baby’s health. So we delivered the baby. The poor thing had all kinds of defects — it was not very compatible with life, and we all knew it.

“This was right around Christmas. I can’t remember if it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it wasn’t going to last very long. And it smiled. It smiled. It was incredible. We all kind of called that a Christmas miracle. It’s just little things like that.”

‘It’s Never Easy’

And then there is the flip side.

“It’s so frustrating when the prognosis is poor,” she said, lamenting what all compassionate nurses do. “The whole issue of prolonging life just to prolong life, as opposed to quality of life and suffering and all of those factors. These are all ethical dilemmas. I guess you’d say they are really hard to come to terms with. It’s never easy, and one of the greatest conflicts we have — when does it become futile?

“To me, those are the biggest challenges, and overcoming them is just reflecting, again, on what makes me happy as a nurse, what reminds me why I do this.”

Finding Balance

Dealing with the extreme ebb and flow of being a nurse necessitates an understanding of how to navigate the work-life balance paradigm. Nhu has no problem with that.

“Yeah, I think I have the ‘balance’ thing down pretty well,” she said. “I have always been pretty active. I love to travel. A group of girlfriends and I used to go all over. One year we went to Brazil, then South Africa.

“Then we decided to do The Climb.”

Taming the Mount – or, ‘When Does This End?’

Yes, this is where the whole “following long, ascending paths” comes in. Nhu and some friends decided it would be “fun” to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

As in the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Nineteen thousand, three hundred forty-one feet above sea level worth of work-life balance.

“Yeah, it sounded pretty cool at first. I’d always been active. I thought I was OK to do this. It was on my bucket list. But you don’t know how hard that is.

“On the day of the ascent, we finished at six in the evening, ate dinner and then got up at 11 that night to go out again, because it’s much better to climb at night than during the day, because there are so many people climbing during the day.

“It was crazy. First of all, it’s freezing. Then we’re getting rained on, hailed on. And then in the dark — it’s very scary. Yeah, I wasn’t feeling so brave at times. I felt crappy and started walking at the back of the group. But we had great guides helping us out.

“It was an incredible experience. There were times I wasn’t sure it would ever end, though. I think I slept for a week when I got back. But we did it.”

About AACN

Another path Nhu is glad to have taken is aligning with AACN.

“AACN has played a significant role in my career,” she said. “Huge. I knew I wanted to become certified and how important it is. Since then, I have helped with different certification committees. We feel it’s very important to be certified, and those committees are the very best around. Really.”

Who is Nhu Tran?

The year Nhu graduated from USC, 2001, the university began closing its nursing program.

“Yeah, it’s sad,” she said. “I can’t believe it. But I want to open it back up. It’s one of my future goals. It’s a really long-term one and will require a lot, but it’s on my bucket list.”

So, then, that is who Nhu is. Compassionate nurse, super student, conqueror of huge mountain peaks, lover of smiling babies — Wonder Woman, indeed!