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Good Medicine: One Nurse's Path to Hope and Healing


Jennifer Evanson Hassel never expected to become a nurse.

By the time she started nursing school at age 50, she had already worked as a lawyer, taken a hiatus to stay home with her children, and endured the sudden death of her husband, before she experienced an epiphany while volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Jennifer’s career background and life experience now serve her well as a nurse at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s Blood Donor Center. Caring for her patients also has helped her heal from the tragedy in her own life. 

“Being a good nurse isn’t just about medical skills,” she said. “It’s also about listening and empathy. I know what it’s like to suffer. I’ve found that there is deep truth in the adage that helping others is good medicine.”

Kurt Stillwagon, director, Recruitment & Talent Acquisition, said that in recent years, LG Health has hired a growing number of employees who come to nursing or other health care roles later in life or as a second career.

“Employees who come to us from different career backgrounds bring valuable perspective and experience to their new role in nursing,” he said. “It’s also not uncommon for people to become a nurse due to a personal or family experience with health care.”

Jennifer decided at age 11 that she wanted to be a lawyer, even though at the time she couldn’t fully explain what being a lawyer actually meant. From then on, she never considered another career.

After a two-year federal clerkship, she joined a mid-size Philadelphia firm as a real-estate attorney. She married Mark Hassel, MD, a resident in Dermatology who she met when he stopped to help fix her broken bike chain during a triathlon-training ride.

Once he finished his medical training, Mark established a dermatology practice in his hometown of Lancaster. Jennifer continued to practice law until the birth of their second child, when unexpected family circumstances led to the difficult decision to leave her law practice and stay home with their children.

The Hassel family continued to grow with the birth of a third child. Life was chaotic but happy, what Hassel now describes as “a dream.” Then, on his 45th birthday, Jennifer’s active and fit husband received a shocking diagnosis of stage 4 stomach cancer.

Despite aggressive treatment prescribed by leading oncologists, Mark died 18 months later. Jennifer suddenly found herself a widow with three children, ages 10, 14, and 16.

She doesn’t remember much about the next two years.

“I shuffled through life with my head down, my eyes red, and my soul angry and bleeding,” she said. “I lost my appetite, wept constantly and sucked into my lungs a depression that took on a life of its own.”

In her intense grief, Jennifer searched for reasons to get out of the house. She volunteered every Friday at a local homeless shelter, washing and folding clothes. Even if she felt miserable when she arrived at the shelter, she always felt better when she left.

Jennifer’s volunteer experience at the shelter proved to be a pivotal point in her career transition. As the second anniversary of her husband’s death approached, she felt compelled to embrace a new purpose of helping others get through challenging times.

“I remembered how much I had admired and appreciated the nurses who cared for Mark, as well as the satisfaction I felt when I learned to help manage his end-stage care, which included administering medications, hooking up feeding tubes, and emptying drains,” she said.

Jennifer decided she would go to nursing school. After all, she thought, how hard could it be? She had already been through law school and passed the bar exam in three different states.

Jennifer laughs now at her misplaced confidence. She had attended college in the 1970s, with blackboards and chalk, typewriters, and encyclopedias. Now 50 years old and 16 years removed from the workforce, she confronted a new learning environment of online discussion boards and laptop computers.

At first Jennifer was overwhelmed by the fast pace and quantity of material. Success at nursing school required an astounding level of effort and focus. Walking across the stage in 2013 to receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing with her children in the audience, Jennifer says, was one of the best moments of her life.

She now brings the knowledge she gained at nursing school, as well as her wealth of life experience and perspective, to her work at the Blood Donor Center. She does her best to encourage people who are struggling, and is grateful to hear stories about why people donate blood and how that relatively simple act, and her role in it, saves lives.

“My background as a lawyer and as a cancer widow offers a unique contribution to the health care team,” she said. “Even after working as a nurse for seven years now, every time I clip on my LG Health badge, I stand a little straighter.”

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