March 3, 2022
Emmanuel Nursing Student’s Medical Journey Featured on the TODAY Show

When Abby McGillivray ’24 began fainting on almost a daily basis in high school, she did not let it derail her ambition to become a nurse.

Instead, she found the pathway to her academic goals as well as diagnosis right in the same neighborhood – the Longwood Medical and Academic Area. Abby's journey of finding the root cause of her condition and treatment was recently the subject of a national segment on NBC’s TODAY show.

“My heart’s racing, I get really, really sweaty. I get really dizzy,” Abby told TODAY. “The ringing in my ears gets really loud too. And then the last part before I faint is tunnel vision.”  

Because this affected her so often, and so severely when seemingly ordinary things like driving a car, eating certain foods, and hanging out with friends became hazardous situations, Abby did her best to avoid putting herself at risk. That is when she turned to Dr. Sunil Kapur, a cardiac electrophysiologist in the division of cardiovascular medicine at nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, for some answers.  

Dr. Kapur diagnosed Abby with a severe case of neurocardiogenic vasovagal syncope, a condition causing a sudden drop in blood pressure. He, in short, explained her condition as a miscommunication between her heart and her brain that would cause the heart to routinely stop. Dr. Kapur went on to tell TODAY that while there have been some medications studied in the past to treat this type of issue, there have been mixed results. “For a case like [Abby’s], there isn’t a clear treatment or clear cure, and at her age, doctors try to avoid implanting pacemakers to keep the heart functioning properly.”

Because of this, Dr. Kapur recommended a procedure that, although only performed a few times previously, would allow the doctors to locate the misfiring nerves and cauterize them. After monitoring Abby’s heart post operation, Dr. Kapur was sure the procedure had worked.  

Since that first surgery, Abby has gone back for a follow-up procedure, but she is now back on her way to completing her undergraduate nursing degree in Emmanuel College Maureen Murphy Wilkens School of Nursing & Clinical Sciences.

“I always knew I wanted to be a nurse through being alongside my younger sister through her own experience as a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital,” Abby said. “Because I saw her finally turn a corner, where she was finally comfortable enough to go back and excited to see the nurses and staff, that’s when I knew by becoming a nurse, I could help others like my sister feel comforted through their own experiences.”

Of course, having her own medical journey did not deter Abby, but affirmed she was on the right path. When she and her parents toured Emmanuel’s campus, she knew immediately it was her top choice. “It instantly felt like home and when they asked if I was sure I wanted to be in nursing at Emmanuel, I expressively said ‘Yes!”

During her most recent procedure, Abby had a primary care nurse who exhibited those same qualities that she aspires to have in her career. “She was so calm, cool and collected and she exemplified how I want to be when I become a nurse.”

Since the procedures have been so successful for Abby, she is even more passionate about her bright future at Emmanuel and beyond. “I am so excited for clinicals. Here at Emmanuel and in the nursing program, they are set on giving us amazing opportunities. I am so looking forward to taking advantage of all of them.”  

“Abby is an excellent student and has persevered through so much,” said Kristine Ruggerio, a member of Emmanuel’s nursing faculty “This will only enhance her perspective in the care she provides to her patients and families. She is courageous, an eternal optimist and always has a smile on her face.  She will make an amazing nurse one day in the very near future and I am happy to play a small part of her journey.”

See the full interview with Abby from the TODAY show.

McGillivray '24 (right) and classmates in the Wilkens School of Nursing & Clinical Sciences

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