Medical team that treats woman’s rare disease inspired her to be a nurse

She now works at Children’s with doctor whom she says saved her life.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Averie Olson’s life has come full circle.

The 23-year-old from Woodstock, who has the rare brain disorder moyamoya, works at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with the doctor and nurse practitioner whom she believes saved and changed her life.

Olson credits Joshua J. Chern, chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, with seeing her through two brain surgeries and nurse practitioner Jennifer Wheelus with encouraging her to consider a career in nursing.

“My family is so happy. They say it’s so awesome that you get to see the neurosurgeon who saved your life every day,” said Olson, who is in her second year as a nurse in Scottish Rite’s neurology department. “And I love it.”

She was only 8 when she started being hit monthly with throbbing headaches so painful that she could only find a dark room and wait for them to pass.

“Headaches and migraines run in the family, so, at first, we assumed that was it,” she said.

By age 10 or 11, some of the headaches were so severe they woke her from a sound sleep. Scans were done to rule out tumors. At 14, Olsen was diagnosed with moyamoya, a disorder caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain in an area called the basal ganglia.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

About a million Americans have the disorder, and although cases appear worldwide, they are more frequent in Asian countries than in Europe and North America, according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Of about 1,400 brain surgeries performed last year at Children’s, three were on patients with moyamoya, Wheelus said.

Olson said she started thinking about becoming a nurse while recovering from the first surgery in the hospital. By the time she was through the second surgery, she had settled on a career in nursing.

“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to do something to help people,” she said.

Olson found the work of the nurses intriguing.

“I was so interested in what they did because of how smooth sailing my surgery was and the stay afterward,” she said. “Everybody was so attentive toward me, probably toward all their patients. But it made me feel like I was a priority, which was super nice, especially after my brain was being opened.”

Wheelus was equally impressed by Olson. After both surgeries, she found Olson in intensive care working on her school homework.

“She didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

When teenagers say they don’t know what to do with their life, “I always plug being a nurse,” Wheelus said.

That was true for Olson, who Wheelus found had two characteristics critical in nursing.

“She’s smart and kind,” Wheelus said. She is so relatable. She brings her experience with her in a very subtle way. She is very understanding and very empathetic, and I think that comes through in the way that she cares for anybody, whether it is a member of her team or a patient she is taking care of.”

Olson grew up in nearby Canton in a close-knit, blended family that includes a sister, brother, four stepsisters, two stepbrothers, and a half-sister.

“All of them are very supportive, and my mom is like my best friend,” she said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Olson had two major brain surgeries before she finished high school, one on the left side of the brain and one on the right. Both operations were to open a narrow artery that was impeding blood flow from the heart to the brain and had the potential to starve the brain of blood, something that can be fatal. The procedure also involves taking an artery and isolating it on the surface of the brain and allowing it to feed the brain.

She underwent a third brain surgery in March of this year at Emory Hospital after she started experiencing twitching on her right side. Her grip also was weak, and her speech had started to slur. Surgeons created six holes with the goal of getting more blood flow to the back of the brain.

Olson began pursuing her career in nursing after graduating with straight A’s from Creekview High School. She went two years at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and another two at Wheelus’ alma mater, Georgia Baptist College of Nursing on Mercer University’s Atlanta campus.

She got her foot in the door at Children’s, working the night shift as a patient tech while finishing her studies.

After graduating and obtaining her nursing license, she was asked if she was interested in full-time employment at Scottish Rite Hospital.

“I ended up crying and called my mom immediately,” Olson said. “I was like: ‘We did it. We got it. We’re finally doing what I said I wanted to do at such an early age.’”

Longterm, she’ll remain under a neurologist’s care and will have to be seen if new symptoms develop. She remains prone to headaches, especially when there are dramatic changes in the weather.

Olson says she finds work in neurology “so interesting.”

“I’ve always loved the brain and how much it can do,” she said. “My mom says this literally shaped who you are and shaped you into being a nurse.”