Class of 2020: Lyndsey Highlander’s second act

After medical issues ended her country music career, Highlander, a VCU nursing student, decided to use her personal experiences to help others.

Lyndsey Highlander. [View Image] Lyndsey Highlander's path to VCU School of Nursing graduate was unconventional, taking her from nearby New Kent, Virginia, to Nashville, where she spent several years touring full time as a country music singer. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

After a medical crisis stemming from a long-term condition damaged her vocal chords and cut short her musical career, Lyndsey Highlander turned to a future in nursing, hoping to help people going through similar hardships.

“I think music and medicine connect me in a different way to patients than other nurses,” said Highlander, who will graduate from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing next month.

Highlander grew up in New Kent, Virginia, and started her musical career around age 5. She auditioned to sing as part of a song-and-dance group and discovered a talent. Throughout her teenage years, she honed her craft and her family took her to Nashville, Tennessee, on weekends, trying to make connections and refine her talent. She briefly attended Randolph–Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where she studied classical voice, but eventually transferred to Belmont University in Nashville. 

“I’m a straight-A student, and I was getting a C in classical voice; seriously,” she said with a laugh. “I was just not that good at it. I am a natural country, blues singer.”

Through grit and determination, Highlander built a career in music while in college in Nashville. She connected with other songwriters and musicians and began playing at small clubs. She graduated from Belmont with a bachelor’s degree in entertainment industries studies and a minor in music business. After college, Highlander toured full time and signed with a major country music agency. She toured alongside such well-known acts as Travis Tritt and Phil Vassar.

Given her success, she hoped to sign with a major label, before a medical condition she had always lived with resurfaced and put her career in jeopardy.

Highlander has always struggled with her esophagus and acid reflux. At age 5 she had a Nissen fundoplication, an anti-reflux surgery in which the top of the stomach is wrapped around the lower esophagus to reduce the amount of acid that will get into the esophagus. Over the years, Highlander had problems as a result of the procedure, and doctors had tried to correct the issues. 

“When you have that procedure, you can’t throw up anymore,” Highlander said. “You just dry heave.”

While on tour three years ago, Highlander got sick and dry heaved for three days. The experience damaged her vocal chords, but she eventually healed. Then the problem occurred a second time, and then a third. Each time was worse. 

“After the third one, I was put on permanent voice rest for like six straight weeks, and my mom had to come help me pack up and leave Nashville because my music career was done,” Highlander said.

She moved into her parents’ basement to recover. Highlander also thought about her future and applied to the accelerated nursing program at VCU. She was always a strong student and had long been interested in medicine, and thought a career in nursing might bring more stability. 

“With nursing, you can see the path ahead of you,” Highlander said. “That was not necessarily the case in music. You could work hard and not know the end result.”

Highlander was accepted into the Accelerated B.S. in Nursing program at School of Nursing and has worked hard over the past few years. Last spring, while participating in a health care innovation project through the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation, she helped create a plan for an at-home COVID-19 testing kit that attracted the attention of the Clinton Foundation. She already has been hired as a nurse in the Surgery and Trauma ICU at VCU Health, and will start work shortly after graduation.

Long term, Highlander is considering an advanced degree, such as a master’s in nursing. She has also thought about being a nurse anesthetist. She had an incident with anesthesia while undergoing her stomach procedure, and that caused a major amount of trauma. 

“It created like [post-traumatic stress disorder] for me,” Highlander said. “It was terrible.” 

Though her career has gone in a different direction than she anticipated, music is still a part of her life. She was able to heal her voice through therapy and says it is stronger than ever. Highlander continues to perform on the weekends at theaters, venues and private events.

Overall, Highlander said she is in a better place. She had dedicated her life to a career in music and, at times, that was not entirely healthy, she said. She assumes stress was one cause of her health episodes 

“I did some of the most incredible things that I ever could have imagined in music,” Highlander said. “They are some of my best memories. … I didn’t get to go as far as I could have, but I feel so much more connected. I am more of a whole person.”

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