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Coming in Sideways

“I think I have another conversion-disorder kid,” said the school nurse on the phone. “He faints at the mention of blood.”     

I told her it sounded more like significant anxiety. The frustrated nurse responded that she wanted to teach the student mindfulness grounding techniques, but the parents refused because of religious beliefs.

“Well, today’s your lucky day,” I said. “I majored in religion in college.”

That always surprises people. Most nurses majored in, well, nursing. Even among those of us who came to the field sideways, most majored in something more relevant. I’ve long since given up explaining how a B.A. in religion from Swarthmore is connected to just about everything throughout my career.

I never planned to be a nurse. When I graduated from Swat, I was pretty aimless. Eventually, I decided on the medical field and entered a “hybrid” nursing program: three semesters to an RN, three more to a master’s degree and nurse practitioner certification.

I did the pediatric track but ached at seeing kids hurt or sick. With two children to raise and a pile of student loans, I needed a job. I don’t recall whether I knew Charles River was a psych hospital when I applied. The facility in Massachusetts was what we call a “real rock ’n ’roll joint,” where earnings were frankly referred to as “combat pay.” I learned crisis-management skills and moved to a calmer hospital, but with no medical benefits, I found a second job as a school nurse. I surprised myself by loving it. Finally, a chance to take care of a whole community of kids! I looked forward to watching them grow from preschool through eighth grade.

Three years later, the school closed.

I developed a patchwork of psychiatric jobs and teaching gigs, and served as adjunct faculty for eight nursing schools. I lectured in pediatrics and led maternity clinicals, but my primary specialty has always been psych.

My patients die younger than the general population: They have difficulty getting adequate health care from providers who are comfortable treating disorders beyond the brain. I like to think I had an impact on my nursing students—who’ve gone on to have an impact on this issue.

Recently, I found my current job developing and implementing the McLean School Nurse Liaison Project, a grant-funded program to improve pediatric mental health throughout southeastern Massachusetts by offering consultation and education services to school nurses and staff. With my 15 years as a psych nurse and pediatric nurse practitioner, 10 years as a nursing instructor, and four years as a school nurse, it’s as if someone stalked me for the last few decades and then designed a job precisely for me.

I serve more than 400 schools, giving in-service presentations, developing useful resources, and fielding phone calls on topics like the student afraid of blood. I helped that school nurse understand the best way to frame the grounding techniques so that the family would see them as supporting, rather than violating, their religious views.

Usually the connection to my undergrad degree isn’t so obvious—but it’s always there. How to communicate clearly; how to flexibly engage with another’s viewpoint and move forward to solve a problem; how to absorb, integrate, and utilize the information all around us to passionately care about and advocate for those in need—these are all integral to being a psych nurse as well as to a Swarthmore education.