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As you may be aware, this week is National Nurses Week — an opportunity to recognize the vitally important role that nurses play in a myriad of settings in our communities.

The decision to pursue nursing as a profession and a calling is unique to every nurse. In honor of this week’s celebration, I thought I would share my own journey into nursing, and how that experience has informed my work ever since.

My decision to go to nursing school was based on a childhood friendship with a very special young man named Dennis. One of seven children, Dennis and his family summered together with my family at a campground on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Dennis happened to be developmentally disabled, at a time when many families kept children like him out of sight or even institutionalized. Not Dennis, though – his folks made sure that he was treated equally to his brothers and sisters.

That first summer, I found myself making a special effort to reach out to Dennis and make sure he felt part of our group of friends and included in the usual mischief you might expect from a group of teenagers on summer vacation. As much of an impact this made on Dennis, it was perhaps even more meaningful to me. I realized the rewards of giving back, and found myself asking the adults in my life what kind of career choice would provide me the greatest opportunity to help individuals – and nursing, it seemed, was an obvious choice. I never looked back.

As a nurse just out of school, I started my career in a critical cardiac care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. Cardiac care nurses deal every day with patients in life-threatening circumstances, and it was no different for me. The fragility of life in the Unit was so palpable, yet I found it so empowering to be able to provide compassionate care to patients and families at their most trying times. These experiences informed the development of a set of core nursing values which I’ve taken with me through every subsequent stage of my career.

Nurses work in such a wide variety of settings, a fact I learned firsthand as my next stint was to provide care at small community hospital on the island of Nantucket. Over the course of the next 18 years, I learned that small-town hospitals can, oddly enough, be where the action’s really at. The range of patients and the spectrum of health conditions you might encounter seemed endless. Soon I realized that my cardiac care skills were just one piece of the puzzle, and I would need to broaden my nursing skill portfolio to meet the diverse needs of the local community. Eventually I was to be certified in an additional three specialties: dialysis nursing, hospital epidemiology and infection control, and HIV/AIDS care.

Working in such a small community hospital setting over those 18 years, I became somewhat of a local expert on HIV/AIDS – which led me to take what I had learned as a compassionate caregiver in the health care world and put those skills and experiences to use in the creation of the Nantucket AIDS Network. At that time there was still such stigmatization of people who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Local providers turned their back on these patients and their families due to ignorance, fear, and sometimes prejudice. It was just the type of challenge that I welcomed as an advocate, and a nurse. The Network was designed as a model to create a community of support for people with HIV/AIDS who were seeking medical care, support to help them maintain their jobs and housing, and education in the community to break down barriers and increase understanding.

Unbeknownst to me this was the beginning a whole new stage of professional growth,  developing public policy and leadership skills that would lead me to DPH many years later.  

Through it all, I have continued to rely on the same foundational values which are common to nurses everywhere – a simple desire to help other people. It is that spirit which I want to recognize on behalf of all nurses, during National Nurses Week and throughout the year. 

Written By:

Commissioner of the Department of Public Health

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