Defining moments lead young alum to oncology nursing


An indecisive Tonya Heileman dabbled in a lot of subject areas while at Heidelberg … biology, women and gender studies, history, religion, literature and art. Ultimately, she knew she wanted a career that blends the sciences and the humanities, and one that offers a strong sense of community.

What better profession than nursing to combine all three. She is no longer indecisive.

“By senior year, I had a plan and the confidence and tools I needed to make that happen,” says Tonya, ’18, a first-generation college student. “I have great professors and wonderful academic experiences to thank for that.”

In June, Tonya, ’18, was hired as a hematology / oncology RN at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Just last month, she completed her master’s degree in nursing from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. For the next year, she’ll be a part of the Mayo Clinic’s Nursing Residency Program, where she will become certified to administer chemotherapy and bridge the gap between the academic and professional setting.

Avenue of exploration

During her time as an undergrad, Tonya worked numerous campus jobs: RA, TA, Orientation Leader, HYPE Leader and Berg Bistro employee, adding value to what it means to support your community. During a gap year, she wanted to explore different aspects of community, so she worked as a substitute teacher, a barista and a patient care technician in an emergency room at a regional hospital. 

That’s where things synthesized.

“That’s where my admiration for nursing blossomed,” Tonya says. “As I worked alongside nurses, techs, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, specialists, EMTs, social workers and doctors, I realized all of the things I had been spending time doing in the past four years at Heidelberg could be found in nursing.”

Defining experience

Initially, Tonya was leaning toward a specialty in pediatrics and was offered jobs with both the Pediatric ICU at Johns Hopkins and the Hematology / Oncology unit at the Mayo Clinic. Past experiences – including those at Heidelberg – and her gut feeling during the interview process led her to Mayo.

As an undergrad, Tonya led a weeklong student trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She also studied cancer genetics as her capstone experience. But it may have been the stories of ‘Berg friends whose lives were somehow touched by cancer that pointed her toward oncology. Those stories “really instilled a deep respect for oncology work in me,” she says. So the decision was made, and she’s very confident she made the right one.

“Even though it was a lot different than the journey I was on, I think it’s important to know that it’s OK to change your mind.”

All in a day’s work

Although she’s very early into her position at the Mayo Clinic, Tonya knows the days will be long, full, often stressful, but also rewarding. In addition to providing direct patient care as well as patient / family education and transition of care, her unit specializes in treating patients with cancer or complex dermatological conditions, blood and tumor cancer, and non-cancerous blood disorders.

Despite the expected challenges, even the smallest rewards are amplified, even unexpected, and they all center around patients. “It’s a privilege to be trusted to care for people in some of the hardest moments of their lives,” Tonya says, adding that she draws strength, enlightenment and inspiration from them. “They have helped me become the advocate and activist I am today. … It’s one of the rewards I didn’t expect but am so grateful to have.”

In addition to medical services, the team at the Mayo Clinic offers emotional support, education and planning which are integral components to holistic patient care. “Patients are seen across the continuum of their journey which can be initial diagnosis through recovery and end of life, and that can be in the in-patient or out-patient center,” Tonya explains.

There’s another exciting aspect to her new position: the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of new research to effectively help this community of patients. “Because Mayo Clinic is one of the most comprehensive cancer diagnosis and treatment centers in the world, there’s an ever-expanding amount of research being done. … It’s also our responsibility to aid in that research and implement new evidence-based practices into our work.”

Strong 'Berg foundation

Tonya’s classes and professors at the Berg laid a strong foundation for her interest and competence in research. Even though her STEM courses at Heidelberg were rigorous, she’s grateful for that foundation and for all the research and papers that were required “because that definitely set me up for success.”

“Microbiology, genetics and seminar courses allowed me to develop a desire for research and put a lot of stock in its importance and implications. It’s what drew me to Hopkins’ research-driven program and Mayo’s research-driven unit.”

She also credits her professors, Dr. Justin Pruneski and Dr. Kylee Spencer (both biology), Dr. Ginny Gregg (psychology) and Dr. Cindy Lepeley (Spanish) for the impact of their classes and mentoring. She describes them as “pillars in my life.”

Every day, Tonya is grateful she gets to do the job she has chosen and that Heidelberg encouraged her to seek her own path. And there’s no stopping her now. She’s pursuing certification as an OCN (Certified Oncology Nurse) and possibly expanding her work in Mayo’s research lab or in pediatric hematology and oncology. Eventually, she hopes to pursue her Ph.D. in nursing.


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