IU Health University Hospital

Her brother’s tumor exposed her to the world of nursing

April 14, 2020

When Melissa Willis was just 11, her older brother Matt—a normally energetic, goofy, 17-year-old boy—became ill. After weeks of severe headaches, blurry vision and nausea, Willis’ parents decided to take Matt to their pediatrician. After examining him, their doctor directed them to IU Health University Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor. He would have to have it removed by surgery.

On the day of Matt’s surgery, Willis recalls nervously waiting at school.

“I remember my other brother, Scott, getting me out of class, and us sitting in the principal’s office, waiting for our parents to call.” Willis reflects on the unknown: “We didn’t understand what was going on. All we heard was ‘brain tumor’… so we sat and waited together.”

After Matt was out of critical care, her parents took her to Indianapolis to see him. She could barely recognize him with his swollen face and bandages.

“I don’t even think I had even been in a hospital before, let alone seen anyone like that. It was really scary.”

Though scared, this is when she was inspired to pursue a career in nursing—mainly due to the calm, caring energy provided by Matt’s nurses.

“It seemed as though the entire time I was there, there were always nurses in the room with him—doting on him, checking his IV line, making sure he was OK. They were there to take care of him, and that was comforting.”

Her brother ultimately fully recovered. Nearly 40 years later and after 22 years as a nurse practitioner, Willis still strives to harness the empathy this experience has given her.

“Anything that personally happens to you or a family member gives you more empathy,” Willis says.

“I want to be known as someone who takes care of other people as well as I would want myself or my family to be taken care of.”

Willis also explains how this experience has taught her to approach every diagnosis with an open mind and that caring for the patient is the most important piece of the puzzle.

“I may not be the smartest nurse practitioner that you will ever meet … I will never claim to be. But I will find the answer for you, and I will take care of you.”

In her free time, Willis enjoys being very active. She has completed two mini marathons, goes to kickboxing every Thursday night and loves to kayak at Lieber State Recreation Area. She is the mother to three daughters, ages 20, 16 and 13, and is a Chicago Cubs fan.

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