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This article was written by Sara McCloskey, VCU Health News Editor, is reprinted with permission.

Eyes full of pride watched as Kendra Yates, 27, walked onto the stage in January (2024). It was Rappahannock Community College’s pinning ceremony for nursing students, and among the crowd were her fiancé, Michael, and her boys, 5-year-old Joseph and 3-year-old Josiah, who was born just weeks before Kendra enrolled in classes.  

But she wouldn’t have been there if not for one of the people pinning her. Katherine “Katy” Davis, M.S.N., R.N., a nurse clinician at the VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center, was on the comprehensive burn care team that oversaw Kendra’s treatment after a serious motorcycle crash seven years earlier. 

“Your life doesn’t end because a tragic thing happens to you, right?” said Kendra, who had dreamed of returning to school to become a nurse. “[Your life] can continue and you can still accomplish your dreams. Even if it looks a little different than what you wanted it to be in the beginning, you can still accomplish it.” 

Kendra invited Davis and Michael Feldman, M.D., medical director of the Evans-Haynes Burn Center, to her pinning ceremony at graduation. The compassionate care she experienced at VCU Health, Kendra says, inspired her unending curiosity to pursue nursing. Today, it serves as an example for the kind of patient-focused care she wishes to give to others. 

Growing up in Middlesex County, Virginia, Kendra envisioned a career in health care, but after trying out school for a few semesters, she realized she wasn’t ready. While taking a break from classes, her dreams were nearly extinguished. 

A lover of motorcycles, Kendra, then 20, fell off a bike while riding as a passenger. The asphalt caused massive abrasions and cuts to her skin. The road rash covered most of her body, the lifesaving equipment of her helmet prevented injury to her face. 

“You know what it feels like to have a skinned knee. Imagine having that all over – all over your body,” said Davis, the nurse clinician. "You’re also losing a lot of fluids. It’s a lot of pain. [Kendra] lost a lot of blood.”  

The injury, which Kendra estimates covered 80% of her body, was so extreme it felt like a third-degree burn. She was admitted to the VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center. While it wasn’t the injury the center typically sees, the clinical team knew exactly how to treat it.

Educational and compassionate care for complex burn injuries 

The effect that burn injuries have on an individual can last a lifetime, which the burn care team recognizes for each patient in the unit. 

“Even a small injury can change somebody’s life, change your relationships, change your work status. We’re very much in tune with how this affects people,” Feldman said. “So, our team wants to work with you to get you healed, to deal with scars and to deal with mental health. All of that’s important. And it’s part of our care for every patient.” 

The team of innovative specialists collaborate to treat all aspects of the patient’s physical and emotional health. From nutrition and physical therapy to reconstructive surgery, this group’s unending curiosity to find new ways to help burn survivors heal fuels their development of individualized treatment options and aftercare. 

“We have everything that a patient needs under one roof, including everything you need from when you come into the [emergency department] to when you’re getting your wound care ... and mental health support,” Feldman said. “Everybody is dedicated to the burn patient. And that’s been put together through support by VCU Health. This institution has made burn care a priority here.”

Making burn care a priority has not gone unnoticed. The Evans-Haynes Burn Center has consistently received the highest recognition from the American Burn Association – and it is the only nationally verified burn center in Virginia to treat adults and children. The center is well-equipped to handle the most complex burn cases, and in Kendra’s situation, between the skin-grafting surgeries and scarring, her stay in the intensive care unit was more than 50 days. 

"While I was there, I ended up in septic shock, too, and had to be ventilated fully awake for a little less than 14 days,” she said. “I couldn’t be sedated because I had such a low hemoglobin. They were worried that I wasn’t going to wake up. It was a big deal.”  

Some burn patients lose a significant amount of blood, and the amount of hemoglobin – a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen – was low in Kendra’s body. But due to her family’s religious beliefs, they did not want to accept blood transfusions from other people. 

“I think at one point there was like maybe a 2.8% chance that I was going to get out of it,” Kendra said. “I’m grateful for the team that didn’t give up on me and just continued to give me the best care.” 

Recognizing the importance of respecting her family's religious beliefs, Feldman needed to find another option. The team eventually found a clinical trial for bovine blood, or cow blood, which can be used for transfusions. Due to the high risk of stroke and other adverse reactions, this is not a routine option. 

But Kendra improved immensely, Feldman says. As she continued to heal, Davis and other specialists motivated her to keep on track with daily goals – dressing wounds, walking and learning to cope with the changes to her body. 

"When she got better, she quickly took back over her care and drove the [care in the] direction of what was important to her,” Feldman said. “I’ve always respected her for that.” 

 What Kendra remembers were the daily visits from the care team. While they knew how serious her condition was – on the brink of death at times – she says no one ever “walked in and looked sad, depressed or upset, like she’s going to die every day.” 

“They had smiles on their faces, and they would say, ‘What are our goals today? What are we going to tackle today?’” Kendra said.  

That type of warm-hearted motivation is critical to every patient’s care because, Davis says, you never know how it will affect them. 

 “You don’t know what people are hearing... You don’t know what they’re going to remember,” she said. “What you say to a patient matters, regardless of what level of care they are at and how sick they are. They could be extremely sedated and you’re just holding their hand and giving them updates, coaching them through their care. It can mean the world to them. ... You just never know how it’s going to impact them in the future.” 

For Kendra, that compassion changed her life – and inspired her to pursue a career in service to others. 

An academic path forged by rural health care and training partnerships

Kendra’s time as a patient at the Evans-Haynes Burn Center ended after nearly two months, but her experience has stayed with her. While on maternity leave with Josiah, her second child, Kendra realized she had to start pursuing her dreams to be an example to her boys.  

 “I can’t wait till they get older, and we get to relive this situation,” Kendra explained. “They will get to see how much I did and how much effort I put in. And just to show them that there’s no stopping you, no matter what.” 

Kendra returned to Rappahannock Community College, where she started her academic journey years before. The school has close ties to VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital as well as several training programs connected to VCU Medical Center, the only academic medical center in the region. 

 “The experience students get while completing clinical for school are often the first interactions a student has with an organization, and this shapes their future plans," said Ellen Koehler, dean of Health Sciences at RCC. “Graduates who wish to stay in their community after passing their nursing boards regularly apply to Tappahannock Hospital or VCU Medical Center. Many go on to VCU to complete their Bachelor of Science in nursing.” 

Juggling raising two boys with her fiancé, Michael, was tough for Kendra. But she is thankful for “her village” who stepped up when she needed to focus on classwork. 

Aryah Williams, R.N., a professor in the RCC nursing program, noticed Kendra’s unending curiosity – connecting coursework to clinical training and always coming to class with a “smile on her face and ready to learn.” And when the topic of burns came up in class, Kendra offered to share her story. 

 “[Kendra] speaks to how her own patient perspective shaped her into the empathetic and caring nurse that she has now become,” Williams said. “Her voice leaves an impact on each new nurse that she shares her story with, and it has become one of the most invaluable experiences for our students.” 

Even after graduating, Kendra has volunteered to share her experience with future nursing cohorts. Her story of “how hope, compassion and an indomitable will to overcome can change the entire course of someone’s life” is inspiring to students, Williams added. 

When getting ready to graduate, Kendra reached out to Davis to participate in her pinning ceremony. The ceremony is a rite of passage – identifying students as nurses who are dedicated to serving the community’s health needs. Typically, a family member with a nursing background or a professor is asked to place a graduate’s pin. RCC made a special exception for Kendra. 

 “I wanted to give [Katy] that honor because she made such an impact on me in the hospital,” Kendra said, adding that she was honoring the entire Evans-Haynes Burn Center team. “I wanted her to know that I was there because of them. If it was not for them, I would not be standing there.” 

“It brought me to tears when I read her email,” Davis said, holding back tears. “Her pinning ceremony was the biggest honor of my life.” 

The Evans-Haynes Burn Center sets 'the bar high' in patient care and education

The impact one person can have on another is sometimes hard to describe, particularly in the work of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.  

 For Kendra, she has a model to follow. 

“My entire goal throughout my health career will be patient-centered care and to make sure that whoever is in my bed is getting treated that way – same way I would have wanted to get treated,” Kendra explained. “I couldn’t have had a better example than to watch the staff at the VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center set that standard for me because, man, they set the bar high. So, if I’m not hitting that same bar, I’m not doing what I’m here to do.” 

And Kendra is well on her way, according to those who have watched her blossom in academic and clinical settings. In March, she earned her license as a registered nurse and is currently practicing on the acute care floor at VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital. She also finished her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Old Dominion University this spring. 

The Evans-Haynes Burn Center has a special challenge coin, with the image of a phoenix coming out of a fire, that is given to burn survivors and team members who have made a major impact on others. Feldman and Davis made sure Kendra received one during her pinning ceremony in January.  

“We told [Kendra] that she’s earned this. She is the phoenix. She is a survivor,” Feldman said. “I’m looking forward to now seeing her in the next phase, which is becoming a nurse, hopefully a burn nurse, who educates and helps others.”  

 Kendra is ready for the role – and the responsibility. 

 “I only hope,” she said, “that in my career, I can continue to inspire and help heal as many people as I can.”  

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