Dana Merk was completing her bachelor’s in theatre at DePaul University when her life took a dramatic turn.

“My senior year I’m applying to ABSN programs and in December of my senior year, December 2003, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I had to withdraw from school, have my treatment. Thankfully, I’m here. It’s been almost 19 years, thank God.”

Surviving an illness that takes more than 10,000 lives each year gave life even more purpose. Now, becoming a nurse meant even more than it had before.

“Everything looked different. My perspective was completely changed. I was 21. I felt like no one understood me. I had been through this literally earth-shattering illness—almost lost my life on multiple occasions—made it through, didn’t know why I’d made it through. I needed to find meaning.

“I needed to use my survivorship for good. It had to mean something—earning this second life. All I wanted to be was a mom and a nurse.”

Finding Her Calling

While repeating her senior year and taking courses to get into nursing school, she worked at the Leukemia Research Foundation and then at Rush University Medical Center. Dana began her master’s in nursing at Rush University in 2010. Her original plan was to become an oncology nurse, like the ones who had meant so much to her during her treatment.

“When I applied to Rush in my admission statement, I was like ‘I’m a cancer survivor, and I’m going to be an oncology nurse. I’m going to change the world, and I’m going to make a difference.’

“I had one clinical on the floor where I was sick—literally where I was treated—because I got my treatment at Rush. They’re amazing. I love them. I walk through the door, take one sniff of the unit, and I’m like ‘I’m out!’ I had to switch to a different clinical. Trauma is real!”

She knew then that she belonged as a labor and delivery nurse.

“I’ve always loved women’s health, so it worked out fine, helping mothers and babies. That was definitely where I was meant to be.”

Dana worked as a labor and delivery nurse at Evanston Hospital for 12 years. She began teaching at DePaul University in an adjunct capacity beginning in 2015. In February 2022, she left her position at Evanston and began teaching full-time at DePaul.

“I love it. I really like teaching. I love the students. I still get to be with patients—just in a different capacity. It’s been good. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Fighting for Change

As someone who was dedicated to making a difference, nursing provided more than one avenue to positively impact people’s lives.

“I’ve always been an advocate research person by nature. If someone has a problem, I’m like ‘Hold on, let me look that up. Let’s fix that.’ So I kind of fell into this nurse as advocate role.”

Back in nursing school, her clinical experiences led her to see some of the bigger issues affecting people.

“When I was at Rush—Rush was awesome—they set you up with great clinical experiences in all parts of the city. I got to see diverse populations and see how social determinants of health affect populations and affect people.”

In 2016, her advocacy work for mothers and babies expanded beyond the hospital. She began volunteering for local candidates and in 2018, a nurse turned political candidate caught her heart.

“In 2018, I started volunteering for Congresswoman Underwood, who’s just my hero. She’s a nurse. She’s amazing. Seeing a nurse run for office just felt so awesome. I wanted to be able to support her because she saw problems that as a bedside nurse I was also seeing but had realized there had to be systemic changes at a really high level to fix those problems. I started volunteering with her and she was able to get elected, which was so amazing.”

Her work with Congresswoman Underwood didn’t stop after the election. In 2021, Dana joined the 117th Congressional Healthcare Advisory Council. The council is composed of multidisciplinary healthcare providers in the 14th district. They meet quarterly to work on policies to improve health and healthcare locally and across the state of Illinois.

“I don’t think nursing students going to school are like ‘I’m going to go into public policy. I’m going to go into government.’ You can do anything. You can really do anything with your degree, which is pretty great.”

Advocating for Children & Families

Through Dana’s work with Congresswoman Underwood, she was asked to speak about what the Child Tax Credit meant to her and her family at an event in June 2021.

“I just told them our story—just how the child tax credit would impact our lives. We’re two working parents. We live in a modest home. We live a modest and happy life. This tax credit was absolutely life changing for two financially stable parents. It was pretty awesome to be able to talk about that. I think 90% of American children benefited from the tax credit, and it reduced child poverty by 40%. How incredible is that.”

In November 2021, she had another opportunity to advocate for families on the national level when she was asked to join the Black Maternal Health Caucus by Congresswoman Underwood.

“I was invited to sit at a table with Lauren and all these amazing leaders from all over Chicagoland who are doing this incredible work on the ground, helping all these organization trying to help women.”

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, Congresswoman Alma Adams, Senator Cory Booker, and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus wrote the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, which was bundled into Build Back Better.

It has 12 provisions to reduce the maternal mortality rate but more specifically for women of color because black women die at three times the rate of their white counterparts—regardless of socioeconomic status or education.

“There are so many provisions in it addressing social determinants of health. Addressing all these health care disparities. We could fix things. We can make it better. It was an incredible privilege to be able to meet with them.”

Some of the provisions include making Medicaid permanent for a year postpartum, as Illinois has done; investing in local, community nurse-run organizations like Melanated Midwives in Chicago; and nursing scholarships to attract more diverse populations to nursing.

Being Part of Something Bigger

“I love working with Congresswoman Underwood because it’s allowed me to be nurse as advocate in a totally different way—to use my experience for something bigger. It’s really fulfilling. It’s unexpectedly fulfilling. I didn’t know this is where the path would go, but I’m really glad.

“I think you just want to help as a nurse, and you don’t always have to help at the bedside. You can help in other ways. I feel like the possibilities are endless with students graduating right now. They can do whatever they like, and if they don’t like it, they can change. That’s a great part about nursing.”