CHAPEL HILL — Meg Zomorodi's mother prepped her to be a nurse from a young age - sharing the gory details of her own days in the emergency room and teaching her the nuts and bolts of the human body.
But it was her mother's sudden death early in Zomorodi's nursing career that did the most to shape her future path. Zomorodi emerged from the traumatic experience eager to improve the way nurses help critically ill patients and their families.
"She even taught me in her death how I could be a better nurse," Zomorodi says. "I think of her in everything I do."
Zomorodi has centered her career on improving end-of-life care - as a nurse, researcher and teacher. She trains future nurses as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she also helped establish a scholarship in her mother's name. More recently, she has led an initiative there to carve out new roles for nurses meant to improve patient care.
She also has strong ties to Duke University Medical Center, where she has worked as a nurse for 10 years and continues to do research. In three trips to Uganda with Duke medical staff, she has helped form a lasting relationship with a Kampala hospital.
At just 32, with a doctorate and a decade of hands-on nursing experience, Zomorodi is a model for a profession that is in flux, her mentors say. Last week, she received an achievement award for recent graduates from the UNC-Chapel Hill nursing school.
"She is a bright and shining star at a young age, and she is what the future of nursing will depend upon - commitment, excellence and a sense of humor all in one package," wrote Marilyn Oermann, adult health chairwoman at the School of Nursing, in nominating Zomorodi for the Graduate of the Last Decade Award.
Eyes open early
Zomorodi is youthful and thin with piercing blue eyes. She grew up in Burlington, starting kindergarten there after several childhood moves due to her father's job as a pharmacist with the Veteran's Administration.
Zomorodi says she grew up hearing hospital tales from her mother, who spared no detail of even the most bloody car accident. Every moment was a learning experience, whether her mother was diagnosing her friend's illnesses or teaching her children the technical terms for their body parts.
"I have vivid childhood memories of grotesque conversations we had over dinner," Zomorodi says. "My brother called his knee his 'patella' when he was two."
When it came time to decide on a college, Zomorodi applied only to UNC-CH.
She played xylophone in the marching band, as she had at Western Alamance High School, and started out as a music major.
Her mother, who worked at UNC Hospitals, suggested that she try volunteering there her freshman year, and Zomorodi says she changed her major to nursing shortly after doing so.
"You don't want to be the same thing as your mom when you're a teenage girl," she says. "But once you get in there you might find out you do want to do the same thing as your mom."
She went to work at Duke after earning her bachelor's degree, and was there only about a year before her mother succumbed to pancreatitis after an infection spread quickly throughout her body. She died three days after falling ill while working in the ER. At the time, Zomorodi says, she had just cared for a patient who died. She felt unprepared and awkward - "like I was tripping over the trash can all the time," she says - and had vowed to do some research on end-of-life care.
Her experience during her mother's brief illness was no better. Zomorodi says she wasn't even told her mother had died; she simply walked into the room one morning with her 17-year-old brother and found her there. Only 22 at the time, she then had to explain to her brother that their mother had passed.
She shares this story with her students when she discusses end-of-life care.
"I want them to know that it can happen to anybody, and I want them to have the tools to improve that experience for the family," she says.
She went back to school in 2003 and earned her doctorate in 2008. She continued her nursing job at Duke throughout her studies and even after she took her current job at UNC. She also met her husband, a neurosurgeon, at Duke.
Wary of marrying a doctor, with their long and unpredictable hours, she agreed to a date only after he asked her out every day for months.
They were married in 2006 and went together with a Duke medical team on their first trip to Kampala, Uganda in 2007. The group has gone back every year since, donating supplies and improving the hospital there.
Zomorodi started out as an operating room nurse, but ended up spending most of her time teaching the Ugandan staff about safety and modern medical practices. When the medical staff found out she was a teacher, she says, they simply gathered around her to hear what she had to say.
She has continued to pull nursing shifts at Duke on top of her teaching duties so that she can stay in touch with clinical practice. Though she's taken a break from these shifts in recent months, she plans to return, whether at Duke or UNC.
"I feel like I need to stay in the trenches," she says.
Zomorodi has strong beliefs about all aspects of nursing, from minute details to broader ideals - patients should be brushing their own teeth, for instance, and nurses shouldn't let technology supplant human contact.
New methods of care
She's published several book chapters and papers, and her research is largely practical, focused on proving that specific changes can improve medical outcomes.
She was only the second person in North Carolina to be certified as a clinical nurse leader, a new model in which Ph.D.-level nurses are assigned to a particular hospital department, where they monitor patients' progress from admission to discharge and address issues such as infection outbreaks.
She now heads that program at UNC-CH, which recently had its first graduate and will soon start a pilot program at UNC Hospitals.
"This will change the way we do health care when it catches on," she says.
Her views on end-of-life care rest on a few central points: patients should be involved early and often in making decisions about their care, and families should be able to take part in their loved one's last moments.
But she says these changes also require a cultural shift among medical practitioners and the larger public, which often has unrealistic expectations gleaned from television hospital dramas.
"Death is almost considered a failure on the part of the physician or nurse, because our job is to care for people and make them better," she says.
"We have to realize it's not necessarily a failure for someone to die peacefully according to their wishes."
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