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For one of Bexar County’s civil court judges, a nursing education from the School of Nursing at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio laid the groundwork and foundation upon which she built her career. Judge Stephani Walsh uses the communication skills she was taught during her first semester at the Health Science Center daily along with valuable lessons such as dedication and knowing how to remain calm during emergencies.
“At the time, I thought I didn’t need social linguistics and such. I thought, ‘What do you mean I’ve got to learn to talk to people and communicate? I know how to communicate!’ Those skills, however, that I learned in the first semester are skills I use to this day almost every day,” said Judge Walsh who completed her B.S.N. from the Health Science Center in December 1977.
Currently serving her first four-year term as the presiding judge in the 45th Civil District Court in Bexar County, Judge Walsh considers the bench her third career. She left nursing to pursue her law degree, graduating from St. Mary’s University in 1985. She practiced law for the next 30 years, specializing in family law. With 85 percent of the cases before a civil bench pertaining to family law, Judge Walsh is both qualified and passionate about the opportunity this new phase in her career allows her to accomplish—serving and giving back to the community.
“My nursing career has been invaluable to me in dealing with family law clients, and now as a judge with family law cases coming before me,” Judge Walsh said. “It has always given me the edge on medical issues; it has always given me the edge on understanding people’s behavior, particularly their variant behavior or their high emotional behavior in times of crises such as divorce. They are usually distraught, and that’s similar to what I dealt with in the emergency room.”
In fact, she spent her seven-year nursing career as an emergency room nurse with the Bexar County Hospital District enjoying the fast pace of the Level I trauma center. She also worked her way through nursing school in the hospital as a student nurse or a UGN (undergraduate nurse).
“I went from one caregiving role and moved into another caregiving role,” Judge Walsh said. “The communication skills, the ability to break down the language and simplifying the explanations
at a third-grade level, are important, because when people’s emotions are high, they retain about 10 percent of what you are saying. I learned that firsthand in the emergency room, and I brought those skills over into the practice of law.”
Having a passion for health care and for the law seemed quite natural to Judge Walsh whose mother was a nurse anesthetist and later attended law school and whose father was an obstetrician/gynecologist with his own medical practice where she began working at 13. In fact two of her brothers are in the medical field. One is a nurse and the other a nurse practitioner.
As she looks to the future, running for re-election and eventually retirement, she remembers where she began and considers her time as an ER nurse as being a part of a family.
“In the ER, we all worked together as a team,” Judge Walsh said. “I enjoyed being part of that team because they were my family too.”
Coincidentally, while campaigning for election, a former ER patient remembered Judge Walsh’s compassion and shared her story of survival with the crowd of supporters, calling the former nurse her “guardian angel.”
“It was really strange,” Judge Walsh recalls, “running into someone who you helped save. I didn’t save her by myself; I was part of a team, but it was nice to be remembered.”
Although she ultimately changed careers, Judge Walsh continues to give back to the Health Science Center by serving on the board of directors for the Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Program and the Adult Nurse Practitioner Program. The skills she learned as an undergraduate nursing student have served her well, shaping her into the compassionate community leader she is today.
Passion for patients and policy positions graduate to impact lives nationwide
From her first day in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as an undergraduate to her current focus as an advocate and policy-maker, Dr. Suzanne Staebler’s passion is giving voice to the most vulnerable and voiceless population whom she serves as a neonatal nurse practitioner.
“I love being a nurse,” said Staebler, D.N.P., APRN, NNP-BC. “I think it is the best job and best profession to be in because you can do so many different things. It is the most versatile too, but ultimately, it is about the patients and the impact we are having on their lives.” With almost 30 years of nursing experience, Dr. Staebler, who received her M.S.N. with a minor in education from the UT Health Center San Antonio School of Nursing in 1991, knows how versatile the profession can be. Considered a pioneer in her specialty of neonatalogy, she currently teaches as an associate professor in the clinical track and serves as the specialty coordinator for the neonatal nurse practitioner program at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. She also continues her practice as a neonatal nurse practitioner at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, including a joint appointment in Emory’s School of Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.
Her passion, however, extends beyond the classroom and the NICU to advocacy and policy design and analysis. As an active member and leader in several professional organizations such as the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) and the National Association of Neonatal Nurse Practitioners (NANNP), Staebler is blazing a trail for others to follow.
“She is an incredible advocate,” said Tami Wallace, D.N.P., APRN, who has worked with Dr. Staebler on policy changes through the NANNP. “While she has made many contributions to our profession, I believe that her legacy will be her work to promote and protect the role of the neonatal nurse practitioner. She has spent many volunteer hours and years in NANN and NANNP,
participating in the LACE (licensure, accreditation, certification, education) initiative and more.”
For her work as an advocate and policy-maker, Dr. Staebler received the 2015 Excellence Award from the NANNP, was elected as the NANNP governing council chair from 2012 to 2014, and was inducted as a Fellow into the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) in 2014.
“As much as I love policy, I love my patients more,” Dr. Staebler said, “and I can’t imagine caring for a different population. I love what I do. That is not to say that it’s easy, and there are days that I can barely drag myself home, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
In a way, Dr. Staebler is a pioneer in health care. Upon receiving her master’s degree from the Health Science Center through a dual-track program, she began practicing as a clinical nurse specialist and neonatal nurse practitioner, and soon discovered how much of an enigma she was in the medical world.
“The state of Texas and the hospitals in Texas had no idea what to do with a neonatal nurse practitioner,” Dr. Staebler recalled. “So I ended up leaving Texas for my first neonatal job at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. I was the very first master’s prepared nurse practitioner in that unit.”
In fact, she had to prove herself to colleagues who initially underestimated her capabilities because of her youth, advanced classroom education, and what appeared to them to be a lack of in-the-trenches training. She credits the classroom education paired with the clinical opportunities at the Health Science Center School of Nursing for her initial success.
“I was very well prepared even though I had all of the theory related to a master’s degree with research and more,” she said. “But I was well prepared to do what it was that I needed to do, and I was very ahead of the curve in the realm of nurse practitioner education.”
Specifically, Dr. Staebler points to the close collaborations and partners the School of Nursing had with the San Antonio community, including Wilford Hall, as the reason she was so well prepared upon graduation; and the courses she took for her minor in education such as the instructional design class that introduced her to new technology.
“I really think that the education minor has served me well throughout my career, both as an informal educator—precepting students, teaching, speaking on the national and international level—as well as now in my faculty role.”
Dr. Staebler returned to the Health Science Center recently as a consultant, and she was impressed by the state-of-the-art simulation space and the progressiveness of the School of Nursing. She was also pleased to discover that many of the same relationships and partnerships within the community that served her many years ago are still serving students today.
“They are maintaining those bonds and relationships with the community,” Dr. Staebler said, “because it is not just about the school, it is about the school and how it relates to and impacts the community, and it is just awesome.”
Staying engaged with her alma mater is important “on both sides of the coin” she said, and discovered that Eileen T. Breslin, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the School of Nursing at the Health Science Center, feels the same way.
“On one side of the coin as an alumna, it’s important for me to stay engaged because I can give back. On the other side, I think it is a two-way street, and I feel that Dean Breslin believes that
too,” Dr. Staebler said. “She made a commitment to me as an alumna to mentor me when I needed it, especially as it relates to my career trajectory, and that isn’t something that I’ve necessarily had. I have three different degrees in nursing from three different Texas universities, and this is the first dean that I’ve really made that connection with, and I am very appreciative of her for that.”
Dr. Staebler’s advice to undergraduate nursing students is to keep learning. Her advice to graduate students is to become engaged.
“I truly believe that nursing, especially advanced practice nursing, is the key to the health care crisis that our nation now faces,” Dr. Staebler said. “Nurses traditionally have not been at the table having the discussions with those in control of policy and funding. If we as nurses will engage fully in the system, we could completely change the face of health care in this nation.”
While she is unsure of where her pioneering spirit will take her next, Dr. Staebler has high hopes and big dreams, one of which is to be the first nurse elected to the U.S. Senate. Armed with an education from the School of Nursing and a lifelong mentor like Dean Breslin, Dr. Staebler will continue to defy the odds and break down barriers.
Millennial makes her mark on nursing
Since graduating with her B.S.N. from the UT Health Science Center School of Nursing three short years ago, Talitha Gonzalez has left her mark not only on her patients but also on the profession through her achievements regarding important nurse reporting procedures at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital. Impressive, considering her career has just begun.
At 24, Gonzalez has taken advantage of every opportunity she can to excel in her chosen field. First, she applied and was chosen as one of three nurses in the VA’s registered nurse transition to practice program, a comprehensive 12-month program with the goal of developing novice nurses into competent professionals.
Next, she focused her evidence-based practice project on bedside reporting, hoping to make a difference for both patients and staff. After completing a pilot study and gathering evidence proving its success, Gonzalez has been instrumental in the VA’s implementation of bedside reporting in five units.
“In the beginning, I thought of bedside reporting like the telephone game,” she said. “With every transfer of information there is always the potential for misinformation or incorrect information to be reported. Once implemented, we were able to decrease the amount of time it was taking for nurses to get into the rooms and assess the patient; nurses were able to prioritize their day, increasing ownership and accountability; and we are able to address problems immediately.
“I think we can make a little bit more of a connection between the patient and nursing staff, as well. At the end of the day, before I go home, I can thank the patients for allowing me to take care of them while I hand them off to the next nurse,” Gonzalez said. “When they’ve come to trust me in the past eight to 12 hours, it’s nice to able to say, ‘Hey, I’m going home, but my colleague is now going to take care of you.’”
A bonus she points out is that it also gives patients and their families a chance to say “thank you” as well, giving them both closure.
Currently, Gonzalez has come full circle with the VA and the Health Science Center School of Nursing, serving as a lead teacher with the dedicated education unit (DEU) where she once was a student of the DEU model.
“She was a student in the very first DEU at the VA,” said Vicky Dittmar, M.S.N., RN, CNE, the clinical coordinator for the DEUs and assistant professor in the School of Nursing in partnership with the VA. “While we now have three DEUs and continue to expand, in order to maintain sustainability, we need those students who complete the DEU program to get hired in the units in which they served as students. As they grow and blossom, like Gonzalez has, they can later serve as teachers with that professional commitment. It’s truly a full circle.”
In fact, as Dittmar has stayed in touch with Gonzalez, she has watched her commitment not only to her patients grow but to the profession as well.
“She can be very quiet, but she has an incredible intellect that is always driving her forward,” Dittmar said. “She wants to do things better and she wants to give back. She is just a very giving and caring person.”
Dittmar said she envisions Gonzalez as a future researcher or faculty member.
“Taking the role as a lead teacher in a DEU is a nice step in terms of the beginning of her teaching credentials, and hopefully, applying to graduate school which would be the next step,” Dittmar said.
Gonzalez is hoping to take those steps as well when it comes to her future plans. She enjoys teaching, is interested in graduate school, and hopes to pursue a doctorate, perhaps in the nurse practitioner program. She also enjoys developing relationships with her patients at the VA, often seeing some more than once when they return to the facility for additional appointments and care. These returning patients have inspired Gonzalez to consider her long-term career path with disease prevention in mind.
“I see patients return and in the back of my head, I’m always asking myself, ‘If we could have caught that diabetes or the high blood pressure sooner, could some of these health issues have been avoided?’ I think I see nursing moving toward more health care promotion and disease prevention,” Gonzalez said. “I think nurses can be the champions to lifestyle changes that prevent chronic illnesses or recurring health problems.”
Gonzalez said she is grateful to the Health Science Center because of its partnership and collaboration with the VA and for the simulation lab technology, which she sees as a valuable piece of the nursing education.
“Clearly the partnership between the VA and the School of Nursing benefited me,” Gonzalez said. “I grew up in the VA. I did my first clinical there, and I think that partnership is crucial. It has created a pipeline to get future nurses and nurse leaders into the VA.
“I love the VA and I love working with the veterans. They are such a unique patient population, and hearing their stories is the best part for me. We still have veterans around from World War II, and while you grow up in school learning about those events, to be able to talk to people who actually experienced it, who lived through World War II and Vietnam and such; I think it is a huge honor to be able to take care of them,” Gonzalez said.
With this type of giving spirit and desire to serve her community, the patients at the VA are the lucky ones; and with graduates like Gonzalez leading the profession, the future of nursing looks very bright, indeed.
Article by Salwa Choucair