Becoming Lady Macbeth at a high school Shakespeare festival was one of many character roles that affected Rashika Kaushik’s decision to become a nurse. There were no great medical emergencies; it was something more intuitive than that.

“I wanted to be an actor my whole life,” Rashika says. “I had a huge imagination and loved role playing. The key to being a good actor is being relatable, and to be relatable one has to be understanding. Both disciplines [nursing and theatre] require a great deal of empathy and the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes—to understand someone even if you’ve never experienced what they’re going through.”

It helped that Rashika had great role models working in public health—her grandmother was a nurse, and her grandfather was a physician; both were involved in public health work in India, where Rashika spent her childhood before immigrating to the United States when she was nine.

While Rashika knew a career in nursing would suit her, it is her passion for disease management at the intersection of public health and health policy that drove her toward a Masters at Penn Nursing and a specialization in the field of cardiology—she is currently a Nurse Practitioner at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s cardiac unit. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans,” she says, “carrying a morbidity of about 28 million—about 11 percent of the population, the pathology is very interesting, the solutions are constantly innovating, and with the problems at hand being so vast, I think it’s a great place to be right now.”

She chose this career path because she is invested in innovating the patient experience. “Historically, the system has created categories of care and expected patients to fit into them,” Rashika says. “I foresee that infrastructure dramatically changing in the near future. Patients now have access to more information than ever before, large corporations are annihilating the barriers to care—recently I had a patient who gets his autoimmune disorder medications from Amazon, for instance. This shift in access puts patients in the driver seat. It gives them power to chose and guide their care. It is our responsibility, as providers, to safely empower our patients and fortify them as leaders in their care. I see myself taking part in that transition. ”

Making connections and breakthroughs that empower patients calls on the empathy that Rashika learned in acting. “Recently I had a patient with heart failure admitted from the ER. The man was extremely short of breath and had a reduction in his functional status; he wasn’t able to walk as much as he usually does. We talked about clinical management for his heart failure, and I told him that his heart wasn’t contracting as well as it should be, that’s likely why he had extra fluid in his lungs. Our conversation digressed when he showed me pictures of his grandkids and his family. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Is the fluid the reason I can’t carry my grandson as far?’ To which I said that it’s very likely, and he delightedly responded ‘Well then give me all the medication I need—look at this cutie! I have to get back to him as soon as possible!’ Moments like that are part of the innovation experience just as much as more wholesale changes in healthcare.”

Rashika may point to her acting experience as a foundation for her ability to empathize, but she credits Penn Nursing with setting her on the right path. “Penn Nursing gave me the words to articulate what I wanted to be when I grew up. From ‘care to change the world’ to ‘innovating for life and living,’ Penn Nursing has validated to me that it takes a great deal of strength to be empathetic, and it takes a great deal of empathy to drive change.”

Random fact: During college Rashika acted in a short film directed by a friend that went on to show in a major film festival; as a result of that experience she gained her own IMDB page.