Brittany Dawson, MS, FNP-BC, is a family nurse practitioner at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, a world leader in Alzheimer’s clinical trials and research. It’s a job that often presents great challenges as Dawson must inevitably watch the health of research participants who have Alzheimer’s decline. But in the midst of the heartbreak that comes with caring for those affected by the disease, she has also found great rewards.

Here, a glimpse into what it takes to work on the front lines of the effort to put an end to Alzheimer’s, and the valuable insights that Dawson shares to bring hope to those whose lives have been touched by the disease… 

You started your career as a maternity nurse. That seems like a complete 180 from the work you’re doing now at MAP. How and why did you make such a career leap?

The thing I love about nursing is the patient education and care. That’s what drew me to maternity nursing. It’s a lot of education and time spent helping patients and their families to prepare for this new life they’re taking home. I was studying to become a nurse practitioner during that time, and when I got my degree I transitioned to caring for patients at a neurology practice here in RI. From there I came to join the team here at MAP in September, 2016. I was drawn here because I thought that caring for patients with memory loss and dementia would be something I’d enjoy, and I knew that I would learn a lot from participating in research.

At first it does seem like the total opposite end of the spectrum from where I started in my career as a maternity nurse, but actually the aspects I most enjoy about what I do are very similar in both settings.  I am still educating my patients and their families, providing care and support, and helping them to deal with different issues that arise along an unfamiliar journey.

What are the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of your job?

Of course, the most difficult part of my job is seeing many of my patients decline over the years, having more cognitive difficulty and needing more assistance in their day-to-day lives. On the positive side, seeing the hope that research participation brings to my patients and their families is wonderful and encouraging.  Alzheimer’s disease can be a really devastating diagnosis, so having something to offer our patients that could potentially help not only themselves but also their children and grandchildren is invaluable. It gives a sense of purpose and a common mission that, I hope, makes the diagnosis a little less difficult. It’s uplifting to see our patients take charge and do everything they can to fight this disease.

What do you think is important for people to know about participating in Alzheimer’s research in general, and about the Memory and Aging Program in particular?

Research participation is really an individual decision that is incredibly altruistic. Our program is involved in many different clinical trials and I’ve seen great commitment from patients and their study partners, some of whom have participated in multiple trials. In just my two short years here I’ve seen the program grow quite a bit, and seeing how this team works together to step up to the plate as the program grows, along with their continued dedication to our patients, is fantastic.

People expect this to be a somber environment, but it’s really not. We see patients and caregivers smiling and laughing in the hallways and in the infusion suite every day. It’s difficult at times for sure, but I feel like we do a good job of ensuring that we are providing our patients with really good care, support and hope. That’s what gives me personal satisfaction and makes me proud to be a member of this team.

For patients who have received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the double-blind placebo-controlled studies might be a turn off because they often worry, “What if I’m in the placebo group?” I certainly can understand that, but my advice would be to think of it this way: if you participate in a trial that offers a 50/50 chance of getting the drug versus placebo, you’ve got 50% more chance of being on the drug than you would if you stayed at home and did nothing!

If you’re considering research and interested in doing what you can to help fight this terrible disease, it’s a really great opportunity that’s available right here in Rhode Island!

Learn more about the Memory and Aging Program and opportunities to get involved >