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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Women of the Year: Wendy Williams-Gilbert researches, advocates for rural health care and nursing

 (Woman of the Year honoree Wendy Williams-Gilbert is a professor and director at Washington State University’s College of Nursin)

Wendy Williams-Gilbert admits she can get on her soapbox at times. She has an actual, painted wood soapbox in her office to prove it.

“My students made it for me,” she says, laughing. “They all signed it.”

Raised in rural Lincoln County, Williams-Gilbert’s soapbox of choice is standing up for rural health care, from education and training for nurses in rural settings to adequate funding for critical-access hospitals.

“These hospitals are important for a couple of reasons: They serve the constituents of that community but they also serve the passerby,” she said.

She knows a thing or two about rural health care. The daughter of wheat farmers, she sometimes jokingly says she was raised in the “West Plains” of Eastern Washington after her family moved from the Reardan-Davenport area to Cheney when she was 12 years old. Decades later, she would go on to work as a nurse in rural communities and critical-access hospitals.

She knew she wanted to be a nurse from a young age, she says, citing an aunt who is a licensed practical nurse and that her father and uncle were both corpsmen in the Vietnam War.

“There was something intrinsically where I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but being a nurse,” she said.

Williams-Gilbert’s path to nursing school was not traditional, she says. After graduating from high school, she began working in government positions. After jobs at Lakeland Village and the Department of Corrections, she moved west to attend Everett Community College, then the University of Washington, where she got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing.

During this time, she got her first taste of rural health care, working at Valley General Hospital in Monroe, Washington, which at that time was more rural than it is today. Then she moved to a much more rural part of the country, relocating with her then-husband to the South. There she began work on her doctorate in nursing at the University of Southern Mississippi. She worked on her doctoral degree for several years, even back in Eastern Washington when she returned.

After roles at Gonzaga University, Western Governor’s University and Spokane Community College, Williams-Gilbert landed at WSU’s College of Nursing in 2015.

Currently, Williams-Gilbert is in charge of the program for registered nurses earning their nursing bachelor’s degrees. She also is a clinical associate professor. She has the opportunity to do research, especially in areas she is most passionate about, she said.

“My research and passions are ensuring equal access to health care for rural America, so anytime people want to do rural work or research or a study, I insert myself,” she said.

Williams-Gilbert is interested in how to train and keep nurses in rural areas, as well as enhance educational opportunities for those working in rural environments.

“I think it’s phenomenal that we’re training physicians to meet the rural need,” she said of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at WSU. “But there could be three nurses to every one physician that you need. We have to invest in getting nurses, really qualified nurses, out to the rural environments and having them stay and really building up that provider infrastructure, whether it’s nurses, lab techs or CNAs (certified nursing assistants).”

Beyond initial training, she is also passionate about nursing education globally. She was accepted to teach advanced master’s nursing courses to students in Vietnam in 2017 for two weeks. Back stateside, this year, she was involved in helping draft legislation to increase the number of sexual assault nurse examiners, called SANEs, in Eastern Washington. SANEs are registered nurses who have taken 40 hours of classroom instruction and clinical, hands-on learning to be certified.

“How do we ensure nurses in Eastern Washington have equal access to sexual assault education and training, and how do we build that interdisciplinarily?” she said.

House Bill 1942 would have established a program at the WSU College of Nursing to provide online and clinical SANE training and establish a pilot program in the college to increase the number of SANE nurses. The bill did not make it out of the committee, but Williams-Gilbert is far from giving up. She was awarded a Partners in Justice award from Lutheran Community Services Northwest in June for her work on the bill.

Williams-Gilbert also works on opioid-use disorder research at WSU; she was recently approached to provide training and assistance with University of Washington researchers looking at implementation of opioid response grants in Eastern Washington. She is also supporting the Medication First program run by the Spokane Regional Health District.

In short, she is a busy woman. Or as Anne Mason, director of the doctorate of nursing practice program at the WSU College of Nursing wrote in her nomination of Williams-Gilbert:

“This last year she has worked tirelessly to ensure that people in Inland Northwest have equal access to care. She tirelessly gives her time to give voice to the underserved. When working with the rural population, specifically in Eastern Washington, one nurse comes to mind.”

Williams-Gilbert still lives in a rural community, Medical Lake, with her husband and four children. At 47, Williams-Gilbert thinks she is just getting started. A large part of her job, she says, is to help bridge the intersection between what’s happening with researchers and clinical practice. She also wants to show her students the value in working as a nurse in rural settings.

“I feel sometimes that the nursing community marginalizes critical-access nurses because maybe I’m not a big fancy ICU nurse or not this helicopter nurse, but I can go to work every day not knowing what’s going to come in the door and know that I can competently triage, stabilize that patient and get it to you in a very professional way and that’s what all these nurses do,” she said. “They are amazing and I feel like they never get the recognition they deserve.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Sept. 16, 2019 to correct Williams-Gilbert’s and Mason’s titles at the WSU College of Nursing.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.