What is a Nurse?: UT Nursing Students

Matthew Burleson

Matthew Burleson (pictured above)

BSN, UT Knoxville student

Architecture seemed to be a perfect fit for Matthew Burleson. He even met his future fiancée, also an architecture student, at freshman orientation. Then, there was the beginning of his sophomore year.

“I had my gall bladder removed, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and my apartment caught fire,” he says. “I said, ‘This is a sign,’ and I took a break. I took that semester off.”

When he came back to UT Knoxville, he had a new career goal to be a nurse. “From my own healing and with my dad, we were in the hospital setting a lot, I came to the realization that I was meant to care for people,” Burleson says. So he worked hard to meet the course requirements to transfer into nursing and was accepted into the program.

His class was among the first to use the HITS (Health Information Technology and Simulation) lab that is a collaborative research effort between the College of Nursing and College of Engineering that simulates the patient-care environment.

“Here I am today,” says Burleson, a Johnson City native who serves as a student ambassador and shows around prospective nursing students.

The other good news is that his father is cancer free, he graduates in May along with Emily Bingham, his fiancée in architecture, and they are planning a November wedding.

While spending time in the hospital, Burleson was drawn to the nurses and the way the nurses interacted with the patient as well as his family. “You can’t just take care of that person. You have to take care of everyone in the room,” he says.

Burleson says he hopes to work for a couple of years, perhaps in critical care, in the Knoxville area before deciding whether he would like to pursue an advanced degree.

Paige Brown
Paige Brown

Paige Brown

BSN Student, UT Martin

Paige Brown’s first patient was her grandmother. While Cora Cooperwood fought stage 4 ovarian cancer in the hospital and at home, Brown observed the nurses working with her grandmother and resolved to follow that career path.

“Every day I was right there by her side, watching everything the nurses did, and when we weren’t at the hospital, I was there to try and help,” Brown says.

Her grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, and it spread to her lungs and brain before she died in 2012. During that time, Brown talked to her grandmother about becoming a nurse, and she finds comfort in knowing her grandmother encouraged her goal.

“She always called me ‘Nurse Brown.’ Every time she needed something, she called me,” Brown says. “If there were things I could not do, I watched.”

This year, Brown learned about cancer treatment in her classes, and her thoughts immediately went to the time she spent with her grandmother.

“Everything I learned, I related it to my grandmother,” she says. “When I see other patients in the hospital, it just melts my heart just to know these people suffered like my grandmother did. It makes me want to go the extra mile for them.”

Brown, who is from Memphis, followed in the footsteps of her mother, father and brother in attending UT Martin. She expects to graduate in nursing next May and perhaps work in pediatrics.

Mike Koehnig
Mike Koehnig

Mike Koenig

BSN, UT Chattanooga student

Caring for his autistic sister is what nudged Mike Koenig toward nursing.

“I grew up taking care of her and watching her back and seeing the role that nurses played in doing that,” says Koenig, who graduates from UT Chattanooga in May. “I saw myself fitting more along the lines of what a nurse does.”

Koenig, who played football and rugby in high school in Brentwood, is among the growing numbers of men entering the nursing field. “When I told my friends I got accepted into the UTC College of Nursing, I got a few funny looks,” he says, adding that he has not felt out of place as a male.

And perhaps that is because he feels natural in the role of caregiver. He recalls advocating for his sister as a young child even when he did not understand her medical condition. As he got older, Koenig became more interested in understanding the medical reasons for her seizures, which were related to her autism.

“It made me realize I love helping people and the science behind what is going on. Nursing is the perfect mixture of science and art of nursing,” he says. “You have to merge the two together.”

After graduation, Koenig will be working in the intensive care unit at Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga. He says he feeds off the stress in what could be a life-or-death situation.

“You are advocating for them when they are at their lowest moment,” he says. “They are not going to remember you for what you do, but I can always come home from the hospital knowing I made a big difference in someone’s life.”

In the future, he hopes to return to school for an advanced degree and help teach the nurses of tomorrow.

Crystal Walker
Crystal Walker

Crystal Walker, UTHSC student


Someone has to talk about it. Crystal Walker is passionate about it. As a nurse, she’s not embarrassed to talk about it with patients.

“When I was working as a nurse at Methodist University Hospital, I saw my first case of anal cancer, and it was in a young African American male who was HIV positive. That is what sparked my interest in anal cancer research,” she says.

Walker (HSC ’11) currently is in the dual doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and Ph.D. program, which will enable her to be both an advanced practice nurse in a clinical setting and nurse scientist in a research setting. She is finishing her Ph.D. in May 2015 and expects to complete the DNP in 2016.

Walker earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Mississippi and while there became interested in nursing during a visit to a hospital in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to learn about HIV prevention. She came to UTHSC to earn a master’s in nursing and was certified as a clinical nurse leader (MSN-CNL).

As a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar, Walker was mentored by Patricia Cowan, associate dean of academic affairs, who introduced the possibility of research to Walker. To further her interests, Walker was matched with doctoral advisor Wendy Likes, interim dean of the College of Nursing whose research focus is lower genital tract diseases. Walker then learned HIV patients had a very high risk for anal cancer.

Certainly, Walker has gotten some interesting comments when she talks about her research. “There are so many different parts of the body, why would you pick that one?” is something she’s heard. Her response? “Well, the risk is so high in this population that it is impossible to ignore the facts. I want to be part of the solution in preventing anal cancer.”

Walker’s dissertation is about how primary care providers of HIV patients are addressing risk factors, and she hopes to do research and practice in Memphis upon graduation.

Photos by Adam Brimer

More in this series:

What is a Nurse? Nursing Alumni