Six-year Neurosurgery Clinic veteran, Karen Ellis, RN, BA, Nurse Care Coordinator, is the recipient of the Neurosurgery Department’s annual Angie Balkcum Award. The award was announced during the January 10, 2019, Employee Appreciation Event held at the McNamara Alumni Center on the U of M campus. “I was pleasantly surprised and felt really flattered that my colleagues would nominate me for the award,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m making a difference in the lives of my patients and that the work I do is valued.”

The award memorializes Balkcum, a long-term department employee who personified the principles of dedication, service, excellence, and good humor. As the recipient, Ellis will receive a monetary award and have her name engraved on a plaque displayed in the department.

Meeting the award's namesake
Ellis received a bonus with her award as Balkcum attended this year’s appreciation event (both are pictured above). “She set such an example of having a strong work ethic and putting patients first,” Ellis noted. “It was great to be able to meet her and to feel like I am emulating some of her characteristics.”

Teamwork is one of those characteristics. “Karen is known for how she backs up her colleagues,” said Barb Daiker, PhD, RN, director of Clinic Operations and Faculty Practice/Department Administrator – Neurosurgery. “She is a consummate team player … it is central to who she is and how she works.”

One of her award nominators also noted that, “Karen is an invaluable resource to the rest of the Neuroscience nursing team. Her depth of knowledge is far broader than 'brain surgery.' Her responses to the numerous bounce-pass questions are thoughtful, to-the-point, and accurate.”

Karen Ellis, RN, BA, and Michael C. Park, MD, PhD

Care Coordinator Karen Ellis, RN, BA, and neurosurgeon Michael C. Park, MD, PhD, work together in the Neurosurgery Department's Deep Brain Stimulation Program

Working with deep brain stimulation patients
Ellis began her nursing career on the Neuroscience Unit at University of Minnesota Medical Center. In her current role, she provides patient care, as well as overseeing the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) Program, working with Parkinson’s, essential tremor and dystonia patients. Ellis follows her patients from start to finish, taking them through the workup process and providing pre- and post-surgical care and education.

Partnering with two of her colleagues, Ellis also helps teach a class for patients who are thinking about having DBS surgery. “We cover the workup process, symptoms that DBS can and cannot treat, preparing for surgery, what to expect during and after surgery, recovery, DBS device programming, realistic expectations for therapy, and research opportunities,” she explained. “It's a great way for patients and families to gather information and make an informed decision about whether DBS is right for them.”

"Cuts through red tape"
Another nominator indicated that, “Many deep brain stimulation patients have challenging cognitive issues, making the task [of coordinating everything] even more challenging. Karen cuts through red tape and lessens the inevitable stress and uncertainty these patients experience as they work their way through the scheduling maze. Her straight-forward demeanor while talking to her patients, whether it be pre-op or post-op, is calming and reassuring.”

An Ohio native, Ellis wasn’t always a nurse. She earned her undergraduate degree in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Michigan. She then attended law school at Indiana University in Bloomington. “I practiced for 13 years and decided I needed to transition into something I felt would be more rewarding personally,” Ellis explained. She attended St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, evenings and weekends to get her nursing degree – and a more rewarding career.