Lynn Witte Rodriguez ’78: Embracing the Turns and Living a Life of Purpose

It is a vivid memory for Lynn Witte Rodriguez ’78. She was a sophomore at Hutchison and on a field trip with her biology class, taught by Elsie Yeates, at the Veterans Administration Medical Center. “They packed us into this little room to watch hemodialysis,” she recalled. “I was horrified by the experience. The whole thing scared me to pieces. I remember sitting there, and someone told me not to lean on one of those little silver instrument trays they put out. All of a sudden I woke up in another room. I had completely passed out.”
At the time, if someone had suggested to Lynn that she should try her hand at nursing, she would have assumed they were making fun of her. Yet, over the last 40 years, she has built an admirable career in nursing, witnessing much more than what made her faint as a 16-year-old. She’s worked in the chaos and trauma of emergency rooms, volunteered to serve on a pediatric helicopter flight team, and dedicated a decade and a half to work in hematology, helping to advance the research and treatment of sickle cell disease. Most recently, she’s pivoted to assisting highly skilled physicians in surgeries for cancer patients.

“The fact that I could go from a fainter to this career illustrates that you can do anything if you want to,” she said. 

Her achievements haven’t gone unnoticed. This year, she was named Hutchison’s Distinguished Alumna, an award that recognizes and celebrates alumnae who are making a difference in the world through exceptional professional achievement and selfless and visionary service.

A Course Correction

As you might guess, Rodriguez didn’t run to sign up for nursing school right off the bat. After Hutchison, she matriculated to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where she was an animal science major hoping to become a veterinarian. The plan seemed promising, but she was challenged by organic chemistry. One of her friends was enjoying nursing studies and encouraged Lynn to consider it. The fact that it would be a secure job and offer a wide variety of specialties appealed to Rodriguez.

It made sense, and Rodriguez decided to change course. After returning to Memphis, she completed her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in 1983. She was hired at Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center and then received her first assignment—the emergency department. “I cried for two days,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t do this. I will never make it through an emergency room. I’m a fainter. It’s going to be awful.’ ”

The interesting thing, she admits, is that she loved it. “When you’re in any kind of situation where you don’t have a sense of what’s going on, that’s frightening for anybody,” Rodriguez explained. “However, when you’re in an emergency room, it’s much more controlled. I think that helped me control my emotions and my thoughts, to calm down, to think critically. I learned to take a deep breath and handle situations much differently.” She worked in the emergency room for three years. 

For two of those three years in the ER, she also voluntarily signed on for another assignment. At the time, there were helicopter transports for adult trauma patients, but none for pediatrics. To fill the gap, the Memphis Police Department provided helicopters to fly a nurse, a physician (usually an intensive care doctor), and a respiratory therapist to hospitals where patients had been taken after accidents. The trio would continue stabilizing the patient and then fly them back to Le Bonheur. The team was on call for at least one to two flights a month.

“You had no idea what you were getting into,” Rodriguez explained about taking those flights. “The helicopter team was always challenging. I kind of dreaded it every time they called. I didn’t have to do it, but I chose to challenge what I could do and get better at what I was doing. It helped me become more independent.”

An Opening Defines a Career

In 1994, Rodriguez had an opportunity to join St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a pediatric sickle cell nurse coordinator, which was part of the hematology division. Her daughter, Sally Wynn ’12, had just been born, and her two sons, Hank and Luke, were seven and four. 

One of her projects was to further develop the newborn screening program in the state of Tennessee to identify children with sickle cell disease. She also became involved in the clinical trials for hydroxyurea, a drug that was being tested as a treatment for patients with sickle cell. At the time, hydroxyurea was being approved for adults but had yet to be studied in teenagers, younger children, and infants.

“I worked on all the trials from the teenagers to the toddlers. Initially, I was just a state coordinator, but eventually, I got to know everybody in the United States who was working on these trials,” she explained. As a result, she was asked to lead the clinical trials for the states in infant hydroxyurea use, which was called the BABY HUG trial. The work started locally in 2003, but eventually, there were 14 clinical trial sites in the United States

Rodriguez directed the national trials and even advocated that the funding and the nursing staff allocated to the different sites be dedicated to this work and not dispersed to other needs. “I learned to really lead at that point,” she noted. She said because she had been involved in the other clinical trials, she never doubted that she could lead the larger trial.

She also sat on several steering committees, including one for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which was unique because she was the only nurse in a group of physicians—mostly men. “I was the one who had the connection with the families. I knew the patients, and I was a voice for them.” When she got some pushback about being on these committees, she remembered saying that she was more than qualified because she understood what was at stake. “I said, ‘I’m a mother of three children, and I know what this means to even consider joining a clinical trial with a child.’ So, it was a growth experience for me that I enjoyed.”

Because of her intense involvement in the clinical trials, it made sense that Rodriguez would take part in the articles being written about the trials for publication. The first article that her name was attached to was published in 1998 in The Journal of Pediatrics. Similar articles followed almost every year. 

An article published in 2010 in the journal Contemporary Clinical Trials was particularly exciting. “We had physician partners, but I was the lead author on that, which felt great.” She also contributed to an article published in 2011 in Lancet, a globally recognized general and internal medicine journal.

Lynn with a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital | Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Hospital

She credits Hutchison for her writing skills. “Even if you were an average student at Hutchison, when you graduated from the school, you had learned to write and to communicate,” she added, fondly recalling her English teachers Margaret Wellford Tabor ’55, Jane Caldwell, Missy West Quis ’69, and Mildred Bonner. “I think that’s a true gift of Hutchison.”

To date, she has contributed to over 15 published articles and more than 25 abstracts. She’s also made presentations to many different groups and at medical conferences, has been recognized by St. Jude, and in 2022, received the Advanced Practice Nurse Hero Award presented by The University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Nursing.

Leading the nationwide clinical trials for a drug was a full-time job, but somehow during that time, Rodriguez found the extra bandwidth to continue her studies. In the early 2000s, when St. Jude decided it needed more nurse practitioners, it worked out an arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania.

“Penn offered a master’s in the science of nursing, with an emphasis on hematology oncology. It was an amazing experience,” Rodriguez recalled. “At that time, I had three children at home, and I was working full time. It was challenging with a lot of long nights.” Zoom wasn’t around then, but Rodriguez said that St. Jude was advanced enough to have video classrooms. Most of the work was completed remotely, with a few occasional trips back and forth to Penn, including clinical rotations at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She graduated in 2003.

For me, my number one goal in life is to treat others kindly, to be compassionate, to be empathetic, to be happy. What does it take for someone to be happy? I can’t rely on just my external surroundings. It doesn’t matter what city I choose to live in, what decision I make, or who I am with. Happiness truly has to come from within your soul.

Using Wisdom During a Transition

After spending 16 years in hematology, Rodriguez said she was ready for a change. She had traveled a lot for the clinical studies and was frequently in Washington, D.C. “I was tired, and I wanted to stay home with my kids. My middle son was playing college football,” she explained.

In 2010, she transferred to St. Jude’s department of surgery to work as a pediatric nurse practitioner with Dr. Andrew Davidoff, chair of the surgery department and director of surgical research, who is a renowned oncology surgeon.

Even though she loves her work in surgery now, she admitted that the transition wasn’t easy at first. “Surgery is completely different,” she said. “I had gone from clinical trials and a smaller amount of direct patient care to full-on patient care and surgery.” 

She said she was able to adjust to her new situation because of two pieces of wisdom. She recalled hearing Dr. Joseph Simone, a skilled clinician and the third director of St. Jude, give a lecture about his famous maxims. One of them was that you must give yourself 12 to 18 months to feel settled after a job change, even when you’re at the same institution.

She also remembered a lesson from her Hutchison Latin class. Her teacher, Bette Carol Scott, had her class translate different pieces from Latin. One was from the Roman poet Horace. The original Latin read: “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt,” which translates to: “They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea.”

While Rodriguez admits that she didn’t grasp the importance of the Horace quote while in high school, she has meditated on it over the years. She explained what it has meant to her: “For me, my number one goal in life is to treat others kindly, to be compassionate, to be empathetic, to be happy. What does it take for someone to be happy? I can’t rely on just my external surroundings. It doesn’t matter what city I choose to live in, what decision I make, or who I am with. Happiness truly has to come from within your soul. I think the pieces Ms. Scott had us translate were very wise for young women.”

With that in mind, Rodriguez thrived in the surgery position. In 2019, she was named manager of surgery advanced practice providers. “I coordinate all of the international surgery now, which I love. It’s why I can’t retire!” she admitted. “I certainly have had hard days like anybody, but I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t contribute. I am honored to work with Dr. Davidoff. Very few surgeons in the world can do the surgery that he and our team do.” Rodriguez also works with Dr. Davidoff’s daughter, Hutchison alumna Sophie Davidoff ’11, who is a pediatric nurse practitioner. 

Lynn’s husband, Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, is the director of St. Jude Global, the chair of the department of global pediatric medicine, and the co-associate director of community outreach and engagement for the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Lynn’s work with international surgery patients and families dovetails well with the global mission of St. Jude and her husband’s work. Without the long trip to Memphis for specialized surgery, these children might not have a chance of survival.

Challenges Balanced with Gifts

Beyond working through the immense difficulties of COVID, which essentially required the St. Jude campus to lock down and for employees to be tested weekly for two years, Rodriguez said her biggest challenge is dealing with the highs and lows of pediatric cancer.

“It’s a job of extreme emotions,” she admitted. “You are profoundly happy when things go well. To watch a child complete chemotherapy and celebrate their survival is the most glorious gift you could ever receive. Then, on the other hand, the days when that doesn’t happen are truly the darkest in a person’s life. It’s really a dichotomy.”

Rodriguez said she finds strength in her family, her husband, and her friends. One of her best friends is classmate Lee Lowry McComb ’78, who joined Hutchison in eighth grade. Rodriguez was assigned to be McComb’s big sister and still has the letter she wrote to Lee telling her how honored she was to be her guide. “We became best friends and have stayed best friends our entire lives.

“My parents have had the most influence on me of anyone. They gave me a tremendous amount of security and love.” Her mother, Sally Witte, was a beloved kindergarten teacher at Hutchison. “My mom played the piano, and even though she had four children of her own, she would knit Christmas ornament bells for each of her little students. I don’t know how she had time. She always had a gentle voice and hug for each girl.” In addition to Lynn, a number of other family members attended Hutchison, including her sister, Barbara Witte Meloni ’84; Lynn’s daughter, Sally Wynn ’12; Barbara’s daughters Ceil Meloni ’13 and Abby Meloni ’15; and Madison Witte ’13 and Chandler Reece Meloni ’11. Lynn’s father, Dexter, who passed away in 2019, was proud of all of his Hutchison girls and was their most enthusiastic supporter, attending almost every sporting event at the school.

“I am so honored to work at St. Jude. Yes, I wish that I had never seen some of the things I’ve seen, but it’s a situation where I have certain skills, and I need to do my best to help people during their worst times. My wish is to help parents and children survive cancer. That’s the whole mission of St. Jude—‘No child should die in the dawn of life.’ 

“My path has always been a surprise. It’s not been well carved out. I haven’t been the person that said, ‘This is where I’m going to be, and next year I’ll be here, and next year I’ll be here.’ Opportunities presented themselves, and then I would make them work.” 

Of course, it’s still surprising, even to Rodriguez, that the person who fainted at the sight of hemodialysis is now involved with surgery. 

“I’ve been able to challenge myself, and I’ve had a challenging career. I had a great foundation to start it with, and I credit a lot to Hutchison. My advice is: don’t be surprised at how winding your path will be. Your career and your life are going to be unexpected. Embrace the turns of your life.”

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