Part three of our week-long series highlighting the amazing work our nurses do every day.
Mary Beth Brake, RN — Memory Jogger
Mary Beth Brake has been a nurse for over 17 years, and before that, a home health aide for another 15. So it’s no surprise to learn that healthcare has always been a part of her life.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in the medical field,” said Brake. “I just enjoy talking with people and taking care of them at all levels.”
But for Mary Beth, nursing is more than just treating injuries and illness. It’s caring for some of our most vulnerable family members.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with the elderly, even when I was a home health aide and a medical assistant,” she admits. “I have a special place in my heart for the elderly. It’s rewarding.”
Brake, who lives with her husband, Rick, and sons, Jonathon and Richard, in Kittanning, Pa., works in an acute care unit with geriatric psych patients, a very difficult and stressful assignment.
“The majority of the patients I deal with have some form of dementia — whether it be Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related illnesses,” she explained.
But for Brake, the assignment is a calling. She recalls her early nursing education when she was one of only two students in a class of 36 who raised her hand and said she would like to work with the elderly. She remembers visiting her aunts in their nursing homes when she was younger as a very influential experience. Now she spends her time doing everything for patients who often can’t do anything for themselves.
“It’s very much like caring for an infant,” Brake explains.
Some of the most difficult challenges Brake faces in her work don’t come from the patients themselves, but from the healthcare system. The push towards a preventative approach to medicine is one that often doesn’t work for patients suffering from dementia.
“It’s all about teach and learn,” she explained. “but my patients aren’t always teachable. You can have a wonderful conversation with them and 10 minutes later they don’t remember talking to you at all.”
Brake sees a lot of patients coming in with multiple health issues on top of their dementia and no support system. Some are living on their own with no family. Her commitment to her patients moved her to get involved outside of the hospital as well.
“I’m very involved in the Alzheimer’s Association,” she enthused. “We’re trying to push for more active involvement from the corporate and insurance side in viewing these patients differently. I’m trying to advocate for them.”
Brake works with the group to increase awareness and funding for Alzheimer’s research and care. She’s enlisted her family and coworkers in Team Memory Joggers to participate in Pittsburgh’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s. In the last eight years, the team has raised nearly $12,000 for the cause.
“I have a passion for baking so I make nut rolls at Easter and Christmastime and I donate the proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Association,” Brake admitted.
What’s more, she runs a monthly support group for family and caregivers in the Pittsburgh area.
“We meet once a month and educate family and caregivers so they know what to expect,” Brake said. “We prepare them for what’s coming.”
Brake said she’s still surprised by how quickly this disease can strike and how much younger her patients seem to be when it hits.
“I’m seeing now 50- and 60-year-olds coming in,” she said. “And I’m shocked by how fast dementia can rob a person of their mind at such a young age.”
Brake said her interest in better care for her patients is also why she fought for the union in her hospital.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to unionize at the hospital,” she said. “The union is helping in so many wonderful ways to get corporate and higher management to understand the needs for safer staffing. They talk about high acuity. Well, when we get these patients, they are high acuity from day one. They demand a lot of time.”
And Brake doesn’t shy away from providing anything her patients need.
“It’s not just documentation and nursing care,” she explained. “I’ll go in and help toilet a patient. I’ll change a diaper on an elderly person. I don’t have trouble doing that. That’s everything that involves nursing care. These people need it.”
So Mary Beth Brake continues to fight for what her patients need. Whether it’s direct care, an ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on, or funding for more services and research. She’s especially keen on helping families of those suffering dementia to deal with the diagnosis.
“That’s one of the things people don’t understand,” she said. “It’s such a hard job for family members to be able to take care of a family, hold down a job and then take care of an elderly parent who has this disease. There’s a book called the 36-Hour Day and it’s truly 36 hours you need to take care of one of these individuals.”
Thankfully, many of them have Mary Beth Brake in their corner and at their bedside.