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Following Her Heart

Note: This is the 44th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Caroline Pratt ’13

During her first clinical rotation, Notre Dame College nursing student Sarah Rak was asked to attend to an elderly patient who was known for never speaking to anyone since his admission into the hospital. Rak was determined to put a smile on his face, walked into his room and started some small talk about the weather and how he was doing. The man remained silent, but Rak continued determined to cheer him up. Then she began to feed him, and he suddenly spoke.

“You’re a sweetheart,” he said with a smile. “And you’re going to make a great nurse one day.”

Rak recalls this moment early in her nursing studies as one she will always remember.

“The man’s smile was just so genuine and real,” Rak says. “It said, ‘You really made a difference.’ It is the little moments like these that I live for in nursing.”

Rak is an ambitious senior with an eagerness for helping people, particularly the sick. She has her sights set on a successful career that includes graduating from Notre Dame this May, attending graduate school, and becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner. One day, she says, she would love to work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

“Nursing is my passion,” she says. “It’s my life. It’s my world. And you’ve got to live your passion.”

Rak’s independence and ambition make her no stranger to responsibility. In October 2011, she became the first Notre Dame nursing student to hold a state board office, when she was elected the community health director for the Ohio Nursing Students’ Association (ONSA).As Rak’s term ended this October, she was appointed a student consultant by ONSA. In that role she encourages the development of personal professionalism, guiding decision making, and facilitating the planning of ONSA events throughout the year.

Through her work with ONSARak implemented a bone marrow drive that spanned across Ohio, added 100 donors to the marrow donor registry, and raised $450 for the Be the Match Foundation. With Notre Dame’s International Nursing course, she visited Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean Sea in March to volunteer in local health centers and a public hospital.

Sarah Rak
Sarah Rak has been an outstanding student leader on and off campus.

On campus, she puts her leadership skills to work as the president of the Notre Dame Student Nurses’ Association. She also participates in many outreach activities such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness Walk, and volunteers for the Ronald McDonald House in Cleveland.

“God puts you where he wants you,” Rak says.

But it is evident Rak is doing more than the average 23-year-old to effect change. She believes nursing is a calling guided by God. No matter what position she is in, Rak is determined to make a difference. It comes as no surprise then that she was this year’s recipient of the Greater Student Nurses’ Association Scholarship.

“Making a difference in the world is not about quantity, it is about quality,” Rak says. “It’s anything from putting a smile on someone’s face, to leadership, to encouraging others to bring out the best in themselves.”

Rak does all of that and more. In addition to her studies, she works two shifts a week in the hematology and oncology department at University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

“I love my job. Love it, love it, love it,” she says. “I can have a stressful day, but when I get to the hospital, it’s my getaway. My patients are an inspiration to me, and it’s amazing.”

Dr. Beth Kaskel, the chair of Notre Dame’s nursing division, says Rak will be a great professional practice nurse.

“She has a passion for knowledge and wants to provide the highest quality of care to all her patients,” Dr. Kaskel says. “Sarah has a love and compassion for all people and she practices her nursing from a foundation of faith.”

Rak appreciates the uniqueness of each patient that she cares for and enjoys the continuous challenge of changing her approach and persona to suit each individual’s specific needs and developmental level. When she is with a child, for example, Rak always makes sure to wear a cheerful scrub top. She will do whatever she can to make her patients comfortable. One of her patients likes for Rak to sing with her, another likes to be distracted by playing “Ring around the Rosie.”

“When working with all individuals across the lifespan, you must find ways to intertwine competency, compassion and creativity in order provide optimal care to your patients,” she says.

One day, Rak was assigned to help a young girl who was undergoing a very painful procedure. Rak wore multicolored scrubs with candy lollipops that day, encouraged the girl, and told her everything would be OK and that she was doing well. The girl screamed during the procedure, but afterward she turned to Rak and thanked her for distracting and encouraging her.

The matter-of-fact way the young patient thanked her is another of Rak’s favorite memories. She says she was shocked to see the true impact a few kind words of encouragement and support had made in this patient’s care.

“Optimism is my driving force in nursing and in life,” Rak says. “I am a strong advocate of positive thinking. I always try to find the good in every situation.”

No matter where she is or what she does, Rak believes that people use their God-given talents to help others and make an impact.

“It is amazing to see how a small act of kindness can leave such a large impact on my patients and their families,” Rak says. “Nursing is my purpose and my passion.”

Caroline Pratt ’13 is a senior communication student at Notre Dame College.