Lessons from ER applied to real estate

April 15-21, 2024

By David Laprad


Rachel Bruner learned how to keep her cool while working as an emergency room nurse at Middle Tennessee Medical Center in Murfreesboro. Whenever she was knee-deep in car crash victims, cardiac arrests and mental health breakdowns, she’d lean into her training and provide the support the ER doctors and patients needed from her.


“We were located right off Interstate 24, so we saw everything. We’d have strokes, gunshot wounds and pediatrics,” says Bruner, 47. “That prepares you for the worst, and you learn to always be ready for the worst.”


Bruner says a compelling desire to help people who are in dire circumstances led her to nursing. The same instinct guides her today in her second profession: Realtor.


Home sales is a second career for many professionals. No small number of Chattanooga’s Realtors worked in education, communications or the C-suites of corporations, to cite a few examples. This has equipped local Realtors with experience that enables them to bring unique skills to a complex process.


For instance, as emergencies cascaded through the entrance to the ER, Bruner would triage her patients, a familiar process in which medical professionals gauge the severity of their patient’s issues and then treat the most urgent matters first. For example, chest pains would warrant immediate attention, while Bruner would place toe stubs at the back of the queue.


As a solo agent who sells 70 homes a year, Bruner often finds herself handling multiple deals. As a result, she often winds up juggling several of the ER-level crises that can pop up during any transaction.


“No problem,” she says first to herself and then to her clients as a house sale looks like it’s flatlined. “I’ve got this.”


“Every day is a full day. And every day, I have to be ready for things that aren’t on my schedule to crop up,” she explains. “Instead of letting that unravel me, I figure out what takes precedence. What’s on fire? What can wait?”


Just as Bruner did during her ER days, she eventually attends to the less urgent matters and provides regular updates to these buyers or sellers.


“I tell them, ‘I’m going to be able to call you at 4.’ People just want you to communicate with them effectively.”


Many transactions do proceed relatively smoothly from beginning to end, Bruner notes, but difficulties happen, and clients can bring their trauma to a transaction.


“Sometimes, my clients are first-time homebuyers or are building their dream home and everything goes well,” Bruner clarifies. “But I’ve also had clients who were coming out of a bankruptcy or the death of a loved one or a divorce. I feel like my ER experience conditioned me to step up and shine in these moments.”


An ER can be a noisy, hectic place, and Bruner learned to be the reassuring voice that broke through the clamor to set patients at ease, she says. Today, she strives to be the calm voice of reason in home sales that appear to be coding.


“As long as my clients trust me and listen to me, I can navigate them through those storms much more smoothly than an agent who’s going to escalate the situation or be emotional along with them.”


Bruner speaks at a rapid clip, which could give someone the impression that she needs to wrap up the conversation and move on to other things, but this isn’t the case. Rather, she has a lot of energy, and her brain pushes words out as fast as it can form them.


“I hear that a lot from my clients,” Bruner laughs.” Maybe that’s why some people choose to work with me. I don’t know if I developed that during my ER days or if I was always that way, but I definitely have a go-go-go mentality.”


Bruner adds that she hopes people also work with her because they know she cares about them.


“Real estate is a people business, and to be successful you have to be good with people. You have to care about their needs and wants.”


Caring about others led Bruner from Manchester to the University of Huntsville, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. After her stint in the Murfreesboro ER, she worked as a travel nurse until she met her husband, Bob, on a blind date.


After marrying, the couple purchased an apartment building in Knoxville, where they were living. Bruner’s husband saw potential in investing and suggested she earn a real estate license. She did.


Bruner, Bob and their two sons at the time moved to Chattanooga in 2005. One Saturday morning while grabbing biscuits at Hardee’s for the family, Bruner’s husband heard Realtor Charlotte Mabry, a former teacher who was making a second career out of home sales, talking about real estate on the radio.


As Bob handed Bruner a biscuit upon returning home, he also gave her another career-changing suggestion: call Charlotte.


Bruner remembers thinking, “Eh.”


“He thought we’d have common ground because real estate was Charlotte’s second career. But at that time, I was planning to earn my master’s degree in nursing.”


Bruner called Mabry, a Keller Williams agent, anyway, and was soon shadowing her at every appointment.


“That was the best way for me to learn the industry,” she says.


Bruner eventually paused her plans to advance in nursing and immersed herself in real estate. By the end of 2005, she’d sold 30 houses.


With the exception of a brief period of time on her own, Bruner worked as part of Mabry’s team until 2017. She now functions as an independent agent.


And business is good, Bruner continues. Close to 100% of her transactions originate with a repeat client or begin as a referral, and she’s made broad inroads into the investment community, which has noted her success with flips and rentals. (She and her husband currently own “25 doors,” she says, speaking investor lingo as she refers to their rental units.)


Challenges naturally arise from this level of activity, but as Bruner triages not just her days but also her life, she takes more than real estate into account; she also considers her family and community, she says.


Bruner’s family now consists of three sons, including two college-age boys a 14-year-old who’s in eighth grade. She also counts her two dogs – a German Shorthaired Pointer named Hank and a Labradoodle dubbed Charlie – as family.


Although Bruner’s business is demanding, there are moments when she places it in the back of the queue with the toe stubs.


“I try to make it to every single thing my children do, especially ballgames. I’m not going to choose my clients over my children,” she says. “Fortunately, my clients know I have kids, and they know how important my kids are to me.”


Despite having a packed calendar, Bruner remains open to opportunities to contribute to the local community. She recently participated in a career panel for students at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, and is serving as the president of the Mountain City Chapter of Business Network International. She can also be found at a local polling place on election days.


“My granny did that every year,” she recalls. “I always thought it was good of her to take the time to do that and decided to follow her example.”


It might be hard for people who know Bruner to believe, but she does carve out leisure time for herself. While this often involves getting outdoors or on water with her family, she also likes to read, try new restaurants and jog with Hank.


As Bruner looks back on 19 years in real estate this month, she acknowledges that the time has flown. This sometimes makes her nursing days seem less distant than they actually are, she muses.


“I miss nursing sometimes. When I see an ambulance, I wonder what’s happening. I don’t know if I could stick an IV in a patient today, but when you’ve spent any amount of time in nursing, then the skills you learned are going to be with you forever.”


So, too, will the desire to help others.


“I have an innate desire I can’t ignore to help people. We all want to feel like we’re making a difference. In real estate, I’m most satisfied when I’m making a positive impact.”  


David Laprad is the Editor of the Hamilton County Herald in Chattanooga, TN. He can be reached at editor@hamilitoncountyherald.com


Photo Caption:


Rachel Bruner