From Patient to Caregiver: Nurse’s personal journey comes full circle

Sun Ko doesn’t remember the horrible car crash, the urgent rush to the hospital aboard a Memorial Hermann Life Flight® helicopter, or the emergency surgery to stop the swelling in her brain that would’ve killed her. But UTHealth neurosurgeon Dr. Ryan Kitagawa remembers her.

It was late on Thanksgiving night in 2013 when Ko was wheeled into the operating room at Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute. Ko had been driving to dinner when she stopped along U.S. Highway 290 to offer assistance to an accident victim on the side of the road. That’s when another driver slammed into her, flinging Ko’s body into her own vehicle.  The impact crushed the entire right side of Ko’s face and left her with bruises on her cerebellum, an area in the back of the brain responsible for balance and movement.

The injury could’ve killed her, but Dr. Kitagawa – who is affiliated with Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center (MNI) – spent hours meticulously removing a section of Ko’s skull to relieve the pressure on her brain. The emergency procedure helped save Ko’s life.

“That kind of injury is very rare in trauma cases because it’s an area of the brain that’s not often injured,” Dr. Kitagawa said. “And people who sustain those kinds of injuries typically don’t survive long enough to make it to the hospital.”

The story could’ve ended there. Instead, Ko’s experience and her weekslong recovery at MNI in 2013 was the start of a transformation that would lead her back, more than two years later, to the very same place where she received the life-saving surgery.

Ko recovers from her injuries in the Neuroscience ICU at Mischer Neuroscience Institute. “It’s so surreal that I was there as a patient and now I’m there as a nurse,” she said.

At the time of the accident, the 26-year-old had been studying to become a nurse. She had already completed three semesters of nursing school and she was nearing the end of her fourth. She planned to graduate, take her licensing exam, and then find a job working in oncology. But the injuries she sustained put her life on hold. She was in a coma for weeks before moving to TIRR Memorial Hermann to complete her rehabilitation.

After months of painstaking rehab, Ko decided to return to school in the fall semester of 2014 to finish her nursing degree. School had always been tough, but Ko found it especially difficult to concentrate after the accident. The traumatic experience left her shaken, struggling to cope with what happened to her, and she failed the semester.

“After the accident, I was so miserable and depressed,” she said. “It was consuming my life. I just felt so sad and alone. I was so young, and it felt like my life had stopped while everyone else’s had just started.”

According to Dr. Kitagawa, Ko’s struggles were typical of traumatic brain injury survivors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says traumatic brain injury is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, contributing to about 30 percent of all injury-related fatalities and resulting in 138 deaths every day. Those who survive can struggle with impaired thinking or memory, loss of movement, vision and hearing, personality changes and depression. Those complications can linger for days, weeks or the rest of their lives.

“It’s a pretty devastating disease because it affects all aspects of your life, even the relationships you have with your family, friends and co-workers,” Dr. Kitagawa said. “There’s a social stigma surrounding brain damage that’s unfair. There’s this connotation that survivors are in a total vegetative state, or they are so severely disabled, when in fact, there are lots of people like Sun who are able to recover to normal.”

Despite the hardships created by the injury, not to mention the multiple facial reconstruction surgeries she would require in the months and years that followed, Ko said she was determined not to let the event define her life. “I didn’t know how hard the road was going to be, but I had this feeling like I had to do this.” She returned to school the following semester, passed all of her classes and became the first in her family to graduate with a college degree.

Sun Ko poses for a picture with her friends at her graduation from nursing school. “Even though it took me longer than others to finish, it was so special. It meant that I could finally become a nurse and move on with my life,” she said.

Although her heart had always been in oncology, when it came time to apply for jobs, Ko saw an opening for a nursing position in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at MNI, one of the largest and busiest ICU’s of its kind in the country. It also happened to be the very ICU that had taken such great care of her not so long ago. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be if I could go back?’” she said. “So I applied for it.” And she got it.

On her first day on the job, on her very first shift on the floor, Ko ran into Dr. Kitagawa.  At first, the neurosurgeon didn’t recognize his former patient in her bright blue scrubs. But then she smiled. “Right then, I immediately knew who she was,” he said. “This is why we do what we do.”

For Ko, the experience was surreal. “Not only did he save my life, but he gave me a second chance to live it all over again. I’m forever indebted to him. He’s seriously my hero.”

On her first shift on the floor of the Neuroscience ICU in February 2016, Sun Ko ran into Dr. Ryan Kitagawa, the neurosurgeon who saved her life in 2013. “I asked for a picture,” she said. “He’s very special to me and my family.” And now they are colleagues, sharing a common mission to care for patients just like her.

Ko is now working on paying that debt forward to patients who are in the same position. As she makes her rounds each day, she’s reminded of the challenges she faced and the tough times her family endured. With each patient, she shows the same compassion and provides the same high quality care that was given to her and her family. “They are more than just patients to me. I truly understand what they’re going through.”

In addition, she recently joined the Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, where she’s found comfort and peace in sharing her experience with others. “It’s really therapeutic,” she said. “And when I tell people in the group, ‘I was also a patient here and now I’m a nurse,’ they’re so happy. I just want to be an inspiration to others with traumatic brain injuries to show them what they can accomplish.”

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Learn more about how you can de-stigmatize the injury, empower those who have survived, and promote the many types of support that are available here.


  1. My son was also involved in a major accident the day before Thanksgiving 2013. He was in ICU at Memorial Hermann. I recall seeing Ko’s family and hearing of her accident. I frequently saw her Dad in the waiting room and spoke to him a few times. I always wondered if she pulled through, and am so happy to hear she did. My son was 18 at the time, and is now in nursing school at UTMB. He too, aspires to one day work along side the great doctors and nurses at Memorial Hermann who saved his life.

  2. Having read the entire blog, I am so in awe of this young woman. To think she survived her tour in Iraq, only to come home to be sidelined by such a horrific tragedy, speaks volumes for her “fighting spirit”! What a remarkable story! God works in mysterious ways & He definitely has a Plan for her! ????

  3. I served for a time with her in the National Guard and she always the smartest, and sweetest girl. To go through this to survive and never give up is the reason so many people love Ko for who she really is.

  4. Congratulations Ko and you will do great in live because you are a strong and caring woman. Continue to keep that beautiful smile that make people happy. Go you miss lady!

  5. SGT Ko as I know her was one of my favorite and hard working Soldiers in Iraq. When I heard about her accident I was very saddened. But I knew if anyone could recover it would be Ko. She was steadfast and determined in all she did and her positive attitude would carry her through. I’m honored to know her.

  6. My love for this Soldier is never ending. We served together in Iraq along with a team of others that has yet to be matched. She will forever be a polarizing figure in my life. She continues to be profound in setting examples for others.

  7. Sun is an amazing person and I remember we were in the same interview on match day! She told her story and there wasn’t a dry face in the group after it! It is amazing how much she has overcome to make it where she is today and I’m positive she will have a great impact on the lives of patients and their families on the unit. It’s not everyday that you get meet a survivor that’s your nurse and I know more great things will come from her!

  8. I served with Sun Ko on my last tour of Iraq. She is one of the most determined, hardworking and caring people i have ever met. She is the only person I know that could have made it through what she has. Her faith, determination and perseverance is unlike anyone I have met. I wish her the best, and I know that this testimony of her faith and perseverance will encourage others (as it inspires me)

  9. This is truly an amazing story. Our daughter was in the same places in July and August, 2013. These fabulous people saved her life and gave us back our young daughter who was 28 at the time. We were so impressed. Dr. Kitagawa was one of her doctors. Everyone there was amazing and compassionate. Our daughter used to be in the support group when she lived in Houston. It was very helpful. I know Sun Ko is a strong and compassionate young woman. This is a tough place to work because of the severeness of the injuries but so needed and appreciated by the families. Sun Ko, you can understand the trials of a TBI patient, everyone can’t. You will add so much to others’ lives as a nurse and a member of the support group. You deserve the best in life from now on!

  10. Such a strong woman with unbelievable tenacity and a heart to help those in need. Her willingness to stop and render aid in a critical situation separates her from the rest that would either drive on by or stop and whip out the camera and record the carnage. She truly is a Good Samaritan.

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Tashika Varma