Top Nurses 2022: Karen Nissen-Boryczka has the heart of a nurse

Agrace nurse who heads a cardiac specialty program is a recipient of the Top Nurses 2022 Leadership Award.
A nurse holding a model anatomical heart
All photos by Patrick Stutz
Karen Nissen-Boryczka, Top Nurses 2020 Leadership Award Winner

When Karen Nissen-Boryczka was just a child, she underwent heart surgery. Tests and procedures related to the surgery followed throughout her childhood. Shortly after her 40th birthday, she had an emergency pacemaker installed. Today, she works as a cardiac nurse specialist with the clinical services team at Agrace.

“My passion has always been cardiac care,” Nissen-Boryczka says. “I’ve been through a lot of the same testing and treatments that other patients have been through. I’ve had similar experiences and can relate in that it’s scary and feels like you lose a sense of control.”

Nissen-Boryczka — who, before joining Agrace in November 2021, worked as a heart transplant coordinator at UW Health and as a nurse clinician with UW Hospitals and Clinics — spearheaded a new cardiac specialty program for chronically and terminally ill patients. Agrace was part of a national collaborative that developed educational materials, guidelines and best practices to help nonprofit hospices develop cardiac-specific programs. Nissen-Boryczka was hired to use those resources to implement a program specific to Agrace’s hospice and supportive care patients’ needs. Agrace is now working toward certification from the American Heart Association for its individual program to be Palliative/Hospice Heart Failure Certified.

“The big thing with coming over to Agrace was an opportunity to help patients that, in the past, haven’t had that specialty care at the end of life,” Nissen-Boryczka says. “I’ve seen a lot of patients end up in the hospital getting invasive care that they didn’t want … so I felt like this was a good opportunity to help patients meet the goals that they wanted for cardiac care.”

Nissen-Boryczka received her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and holds a master’s degree from Creighton University in health care ethics, which has served as one of her guiding lights in her approach to health care and treatment, she says.

In her practice, Nissen-Boryczka strives to keep her patients’ and their families’ best interests in mind and empowers them to make educated decisions about how they want to proceed with their care. “Doing the right thing for the patient is meeting them where they are,” she says. “I always make sure to talk it over and say, ‘Hey, I understand you want to do this. Can we talk it over a little bit? I’m concerned that you might experience these symptoms and I want to try to avoid that.’ ”

Nissen-Boryczka teaches Agrace nurses how to administer end-of-life cardiac care, which requires specialized treatment for hospice patients with heart failure. It’s “doing education with our staff about the importance of continuing [medications and treatments], having discussions with patients about what their goals are and helping them have the best quality of life they can,” she explains. “We’ve done a lot of discussion about education and why we do these things, so it’s been awesome to have people who are other leaders in the organization that have offered support and really bought in.”

Andrew Boryczka, Nissen-Boryczka’s husband, has always been inspired by his wife’s passion and dedication. Boryczka also works with his wife; he is director of culture at Agrace. “It’s always been in her blood, and she’s followed that truly and relentlessly all the way,” Boryczka says. “[She’s] always thinking of innovative ways to connect with and support her patients.”

Nissen-Boryczka had once been confronted with the case of a younger patient who did not fit the stereotype of the “typical” hospice patient. The patient had grown frustrated that she was being declined as a patient and as a candidate for surgery. “I went with her nurse case manager to do education and brought along a model of a heart. We talked about [her] anatomy and explained it using the models,” Nissen-Boryczka says. “She was so happy. She was like, ‘No one ever explained this to me like this.’ ”

Over the past 19 years, Nissen-Boryczka has loved watching her patients achieve their goals. “One of my former patients got to see his first two grandchildren be born,” she says. “That’s what I do this for — that someone gets to have those experiences in life that are meaningful and important to them.”

Meet the other Leadership Award recipient and see all six Top Nurses 2022 award winners by clicking here. This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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