Military Experience Shapes Dana-Farber Patient, Nurse

Written by: Saul Wisnia

Alanna Devlin Ball, LCDR, USN (Ret), and Alexandra Takacs, MSN, RN, both knew from an early age that they wanted to join the military. And while neither of these veterans envisioned cancer as part of their future, they agree that their service experiences helped shape their time at Dana-Farber.

Ball, a medically retired Navy lieutenant commander, says the discipline and focus she learned serving with teams such as the elite SEAL Team TWO special operations unit was useful while going through brain cancer surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Takacs, a former captain with the Army Nurse Corps, says these same two attributes influenced how she approaches her role as a vascular access nurse assisting patients with IVs, ports, and central lines.

A family feeling

Stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, Takacs formed strong bonds with colleagues while treating patients at Madigan Army Medical Center. As a staff and charge nurse, working on a Medical-Oncology floor and in the Emergency Department (ED) at a Level 3 Trauma unit from 2013-16, she treated those on active duty, veterans, retirees, and their families.

“The Army’s specialized training and courses I went through that enabled me to work in the ED were very rigorous,” Takacs recalls. “Our unit was like a family, and it was an honor to care for patients at various points in their lives and military careers.”

Alexandra Takacs, MSN, RN, a former first lieutenant with the Army Nurse Corps, says the discipline and focus she learned while serving from 2013-2016 has influenced how she approaches her role as a vascular access nurse. As of Veterans Day 2023, she was working at Dana-Farber — where she assists patients with their IVs, ports, and central lines.

She’s formed similar bonds with Dana-Farber colleagues since coming here in 2020 and enjoys swapping stories with patients who are veterans or active-duty personnel. Sometimes, a cap identifying a patient’s service will spur such discussions; other times, the clue may be more subtle.

“One patient had this very detailed list of his appointments, including what floor each was on,” Takacs recalls. “I just had a feeling, and then he showed me where he had written, ‘Marching Orders’ at the top. He told me he had been in the military, and I said, ‘I knew it!’”

Controlled competitor

Ball has been similarly organized throughout her brain cancer journey. Even though her time at Dana-Farber has been very emotional, she credits her Navy training for her ability to focus on smoothly passing from one stage of treatment to another.

“If you’re briefing a commanding officer or talking to an admiral, you try to keep your fears at bay and be present at all times,” explains Ball. “It’s the same with cancer. If you can keep your emotions under control, you can figure out what to do next.”

Alanna Devlin Ball (right) and her husband, James Ball, a fellow Navy officer.

This determination has also enabled Ball to excel athletically. In September, she earned a combined six medals in powerlifting and swimming at the 2023 Invictus Games in Germany, at which around 500 wounded, ill, and injured soldiers from 21 nations competed. This was a follow-up to her stellar showing at the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Orlando, Florida, when her medal haul included five golds and one silver competing against wounded, ill, and injured active-duty and veteran United States military service members.

This Veterans Day, Ball took a well-earned break from training to be with her husband, who is still on active duty with the Navy and stationed near their Norfolk, Virginia, home. Takacs, on the other hand, laced her running shoes for the 2023 DAV 5K Boston Run to Honor Veterans at DCR Fort Independence at Castle Island.