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WSU instructor: Activist nurses crucial to health care reform

Lynnette Vehrs, of Washington State University’s College of Nursing, believes nurses will be key players in health care of the future. “Nurses can be too self-effacing. These are caring, intelligent people I teach. They need to understand the gifts they are bringing to our health care,” she said. (Colin Mulvany)
Lynnette Vehrs, of Washington State University’s College of Nursing, believes nurses will be key players in health care of the future. “Nurses can be too self-effacing. These are caring, intelligent people I teach. They need to understand the gifts they are bringing to our health care,” she said. (Colin Mulvany)

A month ago, Lynnette Vehrs, a registered nurse for more than three decades, visited with legislators during Nurse Legislative Day in Olympia. Student nurses accompanied her.

She urged the students to become advocates for patient care, get politically involved and understand that legislators are “people like the rest of us.”

In a recent Wise Words interview, Vehrs, 57, talked about the changing image and role of nurses and how her students at Washington State University’s College of Nursing will be an integral part of future health care.

• In my handwritten application to Washington State University, I (wrote): “I just want to help people. I want to make them feel better.” I show up (in fall of 1972) and find I’m in pre-med. My first semester, I came out with OK grades. I talked to my mother. She said, “Oh, honey, you don’t want to be a doctor. Don’t you want to raise children and spend time supporting your husband? Why don’t you do nursing?” I thought “OK, I can do nursing.” I am so fortunate I did make the choice. Not particularly because of my mom’s nonfeminist attitude, but it has really been a niche for me.

• Right out of nursing school in 1976, I went into psychiatric nursing. It taught me so much about reading people, managing conflict and managing my own emotions. I use that (experience) constantly.

I teach a course called leadership and management and I talk about a situation I once had on a cardiac unit in Seattle. It was with a physician who treated nurses very poorly. About three months after I started working there, he (laid) into me. I’d been practicing what I would do. Even though my heart was racing, I told him: “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.”

He smirked. From then on out, I had his respect. I tell my students that conflict will come up anywhere. Be prepared.

• I have been a nurse for 36 years. Nurses have become much more empowered. Now we’re at the table for making decisions. And we are getting more men into nursing. And people of different backgrounds. One of the reasons it took men so long? The media tends to have the image of the white female and the white cap, and it was too feminine for men. But men, as do many women, like the action, working with equipment, working as a team.

• I ask the students to bring to the classroom videos that show nurses now or in history. I get a lot of “Nurse Jackie” (a cable show about a drug-addicted but dedicated nurse). We realize she’s out of bounds. We admire her intelligence, her moxie, but her communications skills need work.

• We’re led by brilliant people here, including our dean, Patricia Butterfield, who has probably lost a lot of sleep over the (state) budget cuts. It took me approximately $25,000 to get my master’s to qualify to teach here. As soon as I started, I took a wage cut. The average age of a faculty nurse statewide is about 55. We are having trouble recruiting nurses into teaching. They see they can make much more money (elsewhere).

• We’re going to have a nursing shortage. It’s kind of masked right now. With our recession, a number of older nurses went back into the hospitals and clinics. But as the recession is easing off, the nurses are going to (retire) and we’ll have a big exodus. We’re estimating that in 2020, we’ll have close to an 18,000 registered nurses shortage (statewide). We’re only talking eight years from now. It takes four years to educate a nurse. We’ve got to be pouring more money into educating and paying better faculty salaries.

• With health care reform, we’re going to have – in the state of Washington alone – around 350,000 more people that we will need to take care of. That will be a push on our system. We’re finding it’s the preventive care that is our forte in nursing. Nursing has shifted. Only 48 percent of registered nurses actually work in hospitals. You’ll see (more) nurses in schools, in retirement and nursing homes, in community health and home care. Nursing will become imperative these next few years.

• I’ve been with about 25 people when they died. It’s easier for patients who have some sense of spirituality. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a belief system, but the sense there is something more connected among us.

In the early 1980s, one patient, Ruth, had a cardiac arrest out on the golf course with her girlfriends. She had been widowed for a few years. She was on a respirator. I was able to meet her family and friends. I listened to their stories about Ruth. I knew she was well-loved.

At the beginning of one shift, I could see I was going to lose her. I held her hand. I told her it’s OK, (you) can go. Moments after she left, I hear a squeaking sound. It was one of her IV poles hung up on a railing. I think it was her way of saying goodbye. There was no reason that thing should swing.

• I have three lovely daughters and three fabulous stepdaughters. I think my daughters have been planted here to keep me honest. I’ve been a fairly outspoken mother about my views and politics. When it came to getting remarried, they said “Now, Mom, you’re not going to change your last name are you? You’ll keep your maiden name, right?” I so love my husband, Denny Dellwo, and he has a fabulous family in the Spokane area. Boy, I really had to think about it. 

• I teach community health nursing and the (student nurses) go out into the community. A young woman was in one of our school districts. She had just experienced one of her kiddos coming in with an asthma attack. She knew she needed to call 911. She called me and said, “I need to talk to you. Someone almost died.”

I said, “You did it right. You asked for help when you needed help.” Sometimes people, nurses included, don’t realize it’s very good to ask for help. Never feel like you have to do it all yourself.