According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100 million Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes, making it the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. as of 2015. As a result, a number of nurses work with patients who have this disease.
Joyce M. Knestrick, PhD, APRN, CFNP, FAANP, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), says that one of the most alarming and interesting factors is that many patients who come to see their nurse practitioners (NP) have no idea that they have the disease. “Roughly a third of Americans with the disease do not know it, and every 21 seconds, another person is diagnosed. And it is for this reason that diabetes is called the ‘silent killer,’” explains Knestrick.
What can nurses do to help these patients? “As NPs, we discuss things like obesity, poor eating, and bad exercise habits as risk factors that drastically increase patients’ chances of becoming pre-diabetic or diabetic. That’s really what we do on a daily basis—examine patients for warning signs; get to know them by discussing their history, their lifestyles, and their families; and, if need be, order various tests to help us gain more information that allows us to put patients on a proper track towards better health,” explains Knestrick. “As NPs, the key is threefold: active listening to your patients, adaptability to each patient’s unique set of needs, and the flexibility to lead or assist a care team all the way through the patient’s care continuum. So it is really NPs who are on the front lines, so to speak, with the patients battling this disease, and we work very closely with organizations who are working hard to raise awareness about diabetes and how it can be prevented, mitigated, and treated.”
Diabetes, Knestrick says, has devastating effects on patients’ bodies. “NPs have a daily responsibility to understand the risk factors and work with patients to mitigate those risks before they become diabetic. Like with so many diseases, NPs help patients focus intensely on prevention efforts and ways to take better control of their daily health,” she says.
In addition to what diabetes can do to people’s bodies and affect their overall health, Knestrick also points out that there are also astronomical economic costs associated with this disease. “A lack of overall awareness had led to over $322 billion spent annually treating diabetes. This means that health care costs are almost two-and-a-half times higher for someone with diabetes, and that is largely because of additional and devastating complications that result,” she says. “That is why we cannot emphasize enough that it is not just about people with diabetes, but that everyone has a responsibility to elevate awareness so we can avoid the human and economic costs of this terrible disease.”
One of the many specialties in the nursing filed is nephrology—working with kidney patients.
Shamekia Gullatte, RN, BSN, CPN, the Lead Post Kidney/Pancreas Transplant Coordinator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has served as a nurse with many different kidney patient populations, including working as a dialysis nurse, a pediatric nephrology nurse, and currently as a transplant coordinator.
What follows is an edited version of our communication.
As a nephrology nurse, what does your job entail? What do you do on a daily basis?
My current job entails educating and managing care of kidney transplant recipients. After working nine years in an outpatient pediatric nephrology setting, I decided two years ago that I want to care for patients who overcame chronic kidney disease and received a transplant. As a kidney transplant coordinator, I meet with newly transplanted patients while they are still in the hospital and provide education about their care. After the patient leaves the hospital, I continue to be a resource for the patient in the outpatient setting.
Why did you choose to work in nephrology? How long have your worked in the field? What prepared you to work in this kind of environment?
As a dialysis nurse, my first professional nephrology position, I became passionate about the disease processes in this patient population. Over the last 13 years, I have worked in various areas of nephrology. I was prepared to work in this environment because I worked 12 combined years as a dialysis nurse and pediatric nephrology nurse caring for children with chronic and acute kidney disease.
My parents laid the foundation for me to be a compassionate person and appreciate every aspect of life, which really are essential attributes of a nephrology nurse. Then I was awarded an excellent education at the prestigious Tuskegee University, where I obtained by Bachelors of Science in Nursing.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
One of the biggest challenges of my job involves the lack of resources for patients. Some of our patients have limited financial resources and may have difficulties paying medications and sometimes have transportation issues. Although this is a challenge, UAB Transplant has a multidisciplinary team that includes amazing social workers who assist patients with these obstacles.
What are the greatest rewards?
The greatest reward in being a nephrology nurse in transplant is walking into a patient’s room to educate them on their new organ and saying, “Congratulations!” I certainly understand that some patients may have had a tough journey. For example, I can remember when one of my patients told me her story of when she was diagnosed with a rare disease, and she was getting prepared for transplant. This patient had been struggling from dialysis complications. Just to listen to her story leading up to kidney transplant was definitely a tear jerker, but now I was sharing a moment with her that she thought would never come.
I know that I was meant to be a nephrology nurse at UAB Hospital in post-transplant because I get this flutter of joy in my heart and soul every time I receive a new patient.
What would you say to someone considering this type of nursing work? What kind of training or background should s/he get?
To become a nephrology nurse, one would have to earn a degree in nursing and gain clinical experience in nephrology. To become a transplant coordinator at UAB, you have to get all of the above, but also have that little flutter of joy in your heart and soul when a patient receives a kidney transplant. UAB has performed more kidney transplants than any other transplant program in the nation since 1987, and we all take great pride in the care we provide our patients.
Being a nephrology nurse really takes more than just credentials. You have to be a person who is truly compassionate about your patient population, and someone who has a real love and desire for them. I love my patients, and appreciate the opportunity I have to care for them every day.
Although Angela Warnke, RN, director of nursing at the Greenhouse Treatment Facility of the American Addiction Centers, now manages a team of nurses doing direct patient care, until about six months ago, she was a “working” manager, working directly with patients going through withdrawal.
Warnke works with patients ages 18 and older. She says that people as old as in their 60’s and even 70’s are detoxing from opioids and other substances. “Day to day this work is similar to many other types of nursing in that it involves continuous assessment, interventions, medication administration, and caring for the whole patient and their family,” explains Warnke. “Some days I work to physically stabilize patients, some days I listen to people who need to talk, some days I teach groups on the physiology of addiction, some days I just offer hope. Most days are a combination of all aspects of nursing.”
With the opioid epidemic on the rise, many other nurses may be working with recovering addicts and people detoxing in the near future. “Everyone knows or is someone who has struggled with addiction,” says Warnke. “I have the gift of also seeing and experiencing the joy and freedom of recovery. This is a treatable disease, and recovery changes everything.”
During the first half of her career, Warnke worked in critical care in the Medical/Respiratory ICU of a hospital with 960 beds. Then, she worked in an ER that would often see between 250 and 350 patients each day. She thought that she would miss the challenges she experienced when she moved into substance abuse recovery nursing. Instead, she says, she found her home there.
“To be effective in helping people recover from substance use disorders (SUDs) one has to care for the whole person. People’s minds, bodies, and spirits are hurt by SUDs, and I get to engage people and help them heal on all these levels. I get to do the work of caring that I went to nursing school for,” says Warnke. “By far the most difficult challenge of this work is having a front row seat to the effects of this disease. Addiction gets worse as diseases do and kills as diseases do. The tragic loss of life—often very young life—is incredibly painful.”
As for the greatest rewards of her job, Warnke explains it in this way: “I think many people imagine my job is to be treated poorly by whatever they imagine ‘addicts’ to be. In reality, I work with people from a true cross-section of our culture who have quite unintentionally developed problematic relationships with opiates and other substances.
“In general, I work with people who will go on to live full lives, new lives, great lives. While recovery is intensely difficult and requires trying and trying again, our population literally ‘comes to life’ in our care. I get to see people who ‘come in hot’ stabilize. I get to see people who have been beaten down get life back in their eyes. There is nothing else like it.”
When asked what she would say to a nurse who might be considering this type of nursing care, she answers, “Do it.”
“This is the epidemic of our generation, and we need all hands on deck. Find a mentor. Be ready to research everything known about addiction. This is a developing field. Get serious about learning that nothing is personal. Take care of yourself. Give love,” says Warnke. “Every day I get the chance to be better than I was the day before. I feel like I get paid to become a better human being. Like all types of nursing, the job is to meet people where they are at and bring them out with me.”
When dealing with patients, there are times in which nurses need to be their advocates. But have you ever thought about if the instance occurred when you had to act as your own advocate? Janetta Olaseni, RN, BA, HN-BC, CHC, administrator and director of nursing at Hands of Compassion Home Care, Inc., had to do just that.
In February 2013, Olaseni says that while performing a monthly breast self-exam, she discovered a painless lump about the size of a bouncy ball in her left breast. Of course, she went to see her gynecologist. But he told her that it was a normal cyst and that since she was young and didn’t have a family history of breast cancer not to worry about it. If it did become painful, he told her, she could have it removed. Despite what her doctor told her, she felt that something was wrong.
“I immediately did not feel good about his diagnosis and started making plans to have it removed,” says Olaseni. As time went on and life got busier, seeing a surgeon became less important.
“In the meantime, the small ‘ball’ had grown and started to hurt and fill with fluid,” says Olaseni. She quickly made an appointment to be seen. Like her gynecologist, though, the surgeon was treating the lump like a normal cyst and would drain the fluid. After three weeks of this, she requested a lumpectomy.
In September, when she woke up in the recovery room, Olanseni’s surgeon told her that she couldn’t remove the entire lump because she would have had to have taken out nearly half her breast. The once 3 cm lump had grown to 8 cm.
When the biopsy came back, Olanseni’s diagnosis was Stage 3b Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
Today, Olanseni is cancer-free, but who knows what could have happened if she hadn’t insisted on the surgeon listening to her.
“This journey made me so much more compassionate and empathetic towards my patients and their families,” says Olanseni. Ten years ago, she started a home health care company that emphasizes facilitating compassion regarding patient care.
“When you’ve been on the other side with the hospital gown on, having your hair shaved because you do not want chemo to take it out, when you’ve had your porta cath accessed daily, when you’ve had the radiation beam hit close to your vital organs, when you have undergone multiple surgeries, when you’ve gotten therapy and wound care, then you are a true patient advocate,” says Olanseni. “Not only can you say you understand, you really do understand.”
Have you ever thought about changing career paths and teaching up-and-coming nurses? For those of you who have, we wanted to provide you with some information about what it’s like to teach, including the challenges and the benefits.
Michelle DeCoux Hampton, RN, PhD, MS, Professor and Doctor of Nursing Practice Program Director at Samuel Merritt University School of Nursing in Oakland, California, took time to talk with us about her experiences in teaching.
Following is an edited version of our Q&A:
What does your job entail? Do you specialize in specific topics that you teach? How many courses do you teach each semester?
I started in 2005 as a full-time faculty member teaching psychiatric mental-health nursing, health assessment, and synthesis for students throughout our accelerated bachelor’s program in nursing. Later, I began teaching an online course in research in the Master’s program and then the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program.
In 2013, I became the Director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program, and now I teach evidence-based research and several of the DNP Project courses that are geared toward providing mentorship to doctoral students as they complete their scholarly projects.
In my administrative role, 75% of my time is administrative work involving admissions, student advisement and progression, faculty support, as well as curriculum review and improvement, among other responsibilities. In my full-time teaching role, I taught about two courses per semester.
Why did you choose to teach?
My interest in teaching stemmed from my enjoyment of education from the student perspective and my many positive experiences with faculty and mentors.
I first tested myself as the Director of Staff Development in a skilled nursing facility to see how I would like being “on stage” before I ever applied for a teaching position at a university. I was able to learn a lot about adult education and enjoyed the opportunity to connect with the facility staff through our orientation and continuing education programs.
I advised many of our staff nurses about how to go about continuing their formal education and found it was one of the most enjoyable parts of my role in staff development.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Compared to being a staff nurse, one of the biggest challenges in teaching is that there is often no one to fill in for you—at least not at a moment’s notice. You often find that you work when you’re ill, on semester breaks to prepare for the next semester, and on your vacations. The flexibility is nice in a lot of ways, but the tradeoff is that you’re never really off the grid.
What are the greatest rewards?
One of my favorite parts of my job is to work with my doctoral students on their DNP Projects—usually an evidence-based practice implementation project. These students evaluate best practices through critical appraisal of the research literature, design practice change programs, implement changes that involve policy and procedure changes of the staff in a variety of health care settings, and evaluate the outcomes. Through each of their projects, they have provided improved health care to individual patients, communities, and within organizations. Seeing these projects develop from an idea to influencing real people’s lives is incredibly rewarding, and it never gets old.
What would you say to someone considering this type of work?
To me, the best teachers that I’ve known and worked with take a service-oriented approach to education—providing what the student needs to progress to the next level, to continue growth. This takes good observation skills, flexibility to change your approach based on where your student is and what his/her needs are, and a willingness to keep learning. The field of education, beyond what we need to know as nurses, continues to evolve and we have to evolve with it.
Is there anything else that is important for nurses to know?
In my early years of teaching, I felt like I needed to know everything—to answer all of my students’ questions on the spot. This expectation of myself produced a lot of anxiety and self-doubt for me.
Over time, I relaxed a bit more and accepted that even if students wanted me to have all the answers, that was not possible 100% of the time. Feeling confident in the knowledge that I had and my ability to research answers that I couldn’t answer right away effectively, enabled me to say that I didn’t know, but would find out or even enlist the support of other students to find the answer. It was a turning point for me. I don’t think I would have been able to sustain a career in education long term with my previous mindset.