Ashley Norris, RN, case coordinator, spent 20 days in the hospital after a leukemia diagnosis. Photo by Chris Rakoczy

Ashley Norris, RN, BSN, remembers the goal scrawled on her hospital room whiteboard: Smile.

“Just ‘smile,’” she says. “That was it.”

That was enough. It was winter 2017, and just weeks earlier, she’d been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.

“I was in shock. I couldn’t think of anything else,” Norris remembers.

Worse, she’d developed some complications. To keep an eye on things, she was staying in Hartford Hospital’s Conklin Building 2 (CB2), an oncology inpatient unit. She was used to the medical setting, as a nurse case manager at the hospital. But she had never been the one in the bed. Now her own nurse, Tristan, was going above and beyond to brighten the difficult experience. Smile.

Abruptly, her body began to fail. Her bowel died, and she was plunging into septic shock. From CB2, the team rushed her into emergency surgery. In the week that followed, she was on the edge of the worst happening. She was intubated, needed multiple blood transfusions and emergent dialysis.

Her husband, Christopher, sat by her bedside, doing his best to make the right decisions on her behalf.

They’d been married just three months.

“It’s important not to lose why you became a nurse. The way you make a patient feel comforted is everlasting.”

All told, Norris spent about 20 days in the hospital. As her body slowly recovered from the trauma, and she turned again to processing her cancer diagnosis, every act of kindness helped. In the surgical intensive care unit, she was surrounded by it.

“Small things like getting a warm blanket, braiding my hair, being able to work with physical therapy and occupational therapy to walk to the sink and wash my hair — those are just a few things I’ll never forget,” she says. “The whole care team treated me like I was one of their family members.”

Once she was well enough, Norris returned to nursing with an even deeper commitment and empathy for the work.

“I am forever grateful to Hartford Hospital for saving my life, and I am beyond honored to work for Hartford HealthCare,” she says.

In her role as a case coordinator, she often meets with patients and families in the ICU. Every time, she draws on her own experience.

“I have this added knowledge, this second lens of what it’s really like,” Norris says. “I have been on the patient side. I understand those feelings. I try to treat patients as if they’re my mother, my brother, my dad, my husband.

“It’s important not to lose why you became a nurse. The way you make a patient feel comforted is everlasting.”