Photo by Chris Hartlove
It would be tough for things to be going any better right now for Ashley Sayles, RN. The Jamaica, Queens native, December grad, and current member of the master’s program recently passed the NCLEX, starts her dream job in pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins Hospital this spring, and has begun planning her wedding. Sayles talked about how she got to such a good place from November 27, 2013, the day her father died suddenly, less than two weeks before finals in her first semester.
HOW DID YOU KEEP YOUR FOCUS?
Up until that time it didn’t feel like learning was a task. It wasn’t, “Oh my gosh, I have to read 500 pages.” This is something I really care about, the human body. I’m fascinated by how it works. It’ll be OK. I was just on a roll, I was signing up for everything. Let’s get involved, let’s do it. Then my dad died. … It was a really weird situation. I went home for Thanksgiving, and came back one day after. I sent some emails to my instructors, “I just want to let you guys know that this has happened, but everything is regularly scheduled programming. I’m finishing. I’m taking my signoffs, I’m taking my finals.” It’s two weeks, then we have six weeks off. I can get through two weeks. My mom was, like, “Go!” And I can just imagine my dad saying, “If she loses four months of work, when she’s only two weeks away, just so she can sit home and cry? I’m going to be pissed.” When I was at school, I was at school. Of course I thought about it, but at the same time, my family worked hard for this, put in a lot of sacrifice for me to be here. “I owe it to everyone.” I pushed through.
HERE AT THE SCHOOL OF NURSING, YOU’VE BEEN HEAD OF THE BLACK NURSES ASSOCIATION, IN STUDENT GOVERNMENT, A DOULA, A MENTOR, A TOUR GUIDE. WHERE DOES YOUR DRIVE TO BE SO INVOLVED COME FROM?
I learned to be really involved in high school [Bronx High School of Science, one of the top schools in New York and the nation]. It was the first time I had to learn to be comfortable around students who didn’t look like me. It was where I learned audacity: Thinking that you could actually go somewhere like Johns Hopkins. In my community, we are very education-focused. We don’t play games. If you’re in a class, you’re at the top of the class. You had to take a test to get into that high school, and I prepared like crazy. And I was, like, 11. It was a very competitive school. It was awesome. But it could get very stressful, and we were very young for that kind of competition. And that was my way of kind of finding fun in it.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE ACTIVITIES?
I was very active—the black student association there as well, captain of the cheerleading team my junior and senior year, I managed the varsity basketball team, gosh, everything. The musical theater guy found out I could tap dance. He said, “We’re going to do a musical, a tap-dancing musical.” I was like, “Why?” And he said, “Because you’re going to be in it.” It was crazy. No one else knew how to tap dance, so everyone is learning how to tap dance. He was like, “If we have one star, that’s all we need. We’re good.” At college [Howard University in Washington, DC], I wasn’t really so active, just really one program, Jewels Inc. It’s a mentorship program for urban girls 8-18 that was founded at Howard in 2007. I’m still working at it, trying to bring the program to Morgan State University in Baltimore. It’s such a fun organization. Young girls especially just need someone to remind them what is possible.
WHY THE DOULA PROGRAM?
I was stuck. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in pediatrics or labor and delivery. It was a great experience, helping me learn to talk to people I didn’t know and getting to know them at a really intimate time in their life. A lot of them were first-time parents and had no idea what they were doing. And they really trust you as their guide and confidant in what they’re going through. It was really good for me to learn how to be that therapeutic person. You can’t really learn that in a class.
SOME STUDENTS GO THROUGH THE PROGRAM AND RARELY EVER SEE A BIRTH, RIGHT?
It’s like the babies were afraid of them. The babies would come, like, 15 minutes after clinicals were over. But that’s where I learned that I liked the babies more than the mothers. As soon as the baby was out I would immediately be at the baby’s side. The poor mom. “Bye. I’ve got to talk to the baby now.” So that really solidified my passion for pediatrics. It’s almost like I’ve come full circle. I was a pediatrics patient. I grew up as a sick kid. I still today have chronic asthma. I was diagnosed when I was 2, and was in and out of the hospital a whole lot. My class pictures? I wasn’t in any of them from first to fourth grade. But I remember the hospital being fun. I was, like, “Oh my gosh, do I get to go to the hospital?!” There were all these games. And my mom, I wouldn’t say she was so strict, but it was the one time, you know, I could eat whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to study. I could just … be a kid. The nurses were so awesome, and I don’t know if it was because they knew my mom, but they gave me all this special attention.
DID YOU EVER FAKE AN ATTACK TO GET TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL?
I tried, but my mom knew. She’s a nurse. I tried to perfect this fake wheeze. She was like, “Ashley, you’re not wheezing. You’re humming.”
My whole Hopkins train ride has been just a funny, funny story. I had decided I was going to the University of Miami Nursing School. I was excited, because my whole extended family—aunts, uncles, all of them are down there. The weather’s great. I never gave much thought to going to Hopkins, what it would be like, because I didn’t think I would get in. So I heard from the University of Miami first, and I said, “OK, this is it!”
WHAT CHANGED THAT?
I missed my flight. I was taking the metro, with my roommate and my best friend, to the airport in DC and the metro just … stops. It was a direct flight. Now we had to go through Atlanta. The next flight to Miami only had two seats. The rental car was in my roommate’s name and the hotel was in my best friend’s name. I told them, “You guys go. I’m just going to stay here and wait. I’m sure I can get one open seat on a flight sometime today.” So I’m just at the Atlanta airport, all alone. And I call my mom all upset. “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be here forever!” I’m just going off, and I get a call on the other line, some weird Baltimore number. I said, “Mom, who’s calling me from Baltimore?” I didn’t want to talk to anybody right now … ignore. Then I get a voicemail and I’m, like, “Mom, who still leaves voicemails? I’ll call you back.” And she just told me to calm down, it’ll be OK, and I was, like, “No, it won’t be OK!”
So I listened to the voicemail: “Hi, I just wanted to let you know you’ve been accepted by Johns Hopkins.” I was, like, “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” I called my mom back. She didn’t want to answer. “There’s nothing we can do about the flight, Ashley.” That’s how she answers the phone. “No, no, that’s not it. Mom, I just got into Hopkins.” … So of course I get to Miami and I hate it, I didn’t like it anymore, because I got into Hopkins. I came to Accepted Students Day, fell in love with the school, bought a sweatshirt, took a picture and posted it on my Instagram: “I picked Hopkins!”
DID YOU MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE?
Hopkins is amazing. Just … the support you get, the experience. I was over at Hopkins Hospital in the infant and toddler unit, and the things that you see there. It’s like, 1 kid in every 10 million is born with this, and you have three of them on this unit. You never see that anywhere else! I didn’t know I was supposed to be here, but looking back it’s sort of like, “This all makes so much sense. This is really where I was supposed to be.”