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A career spent dedicated to helping the sick and teaching the next generation of nurses has earned Washington State University clinical assistant professor Debbie Brinker the 2020 YWCA Woman of Achievement Award in science, technology and environment.
The annual Women of Achievement winners are typically honored during a fundraising luncheon, but this year there was a virtual celebration Oct. 1.
Brinker grew up in Seattle and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Washington. She was initially uncertain what she wanted to study, but gravitated toward nursing.
“I think it was the blend of science and math and I also really enjoyed helping people,” she said. “When I got into nursing, it was such a good fit for me.”
She worked at Seattle Children’s Hospital as a pediatric critical care nurse for two years before joining the Air RN Force. She was interested in the Air Force’s nurse practitioner graduate program, but it wasn’t to be.
“By the time I got there, they’d ended the program,” she said.
She found herself stationed in Florida providing care to mostly military retirees. She said she appreciated the life stories she heard from her patients.
“For me, it was just a lesson to listen to people,” she said. “I also just grew to appreciate the stories people had.”
Along the way, she suggested several staffing changes in the hospital where she worked, changes that were approved. That was when she first realized she could have an impact in more than patient care.
“That started my leadership journey,” she said.
After nearly four years in the Air Force, she moved back home to be closer to her sick father. She worked as an adult critical care nurse, then went back to work at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She briefly moved to New York with her husband, then came back to the Northwest to work as a pediatric critical care nurse at Deaconess Medical Center.
Brinker is a firm believer in the importance of collaboration and how it is better and more efficient than working alone. While in Spokane she was part of the Northwest Pediatrics Critical Care Cooperative, which included medical professionals from Washington, Oregon and Montana.
“We did a lot of our education together with our colleagues at Sacred Heart,” she said.
She spent time living in California while she earned her master’s degree in nursing. She went back to Seattle for more time working at Seattle Children’s Hospital before her husband got a job in Spokane and she went back to the Pediatric ICU at Deaconess Medical Center.
When the Pediatric ICU closed, she started teaching at what was called the Intercollegiate College of Nursing and is now the WSU School of Nursing. In addition to her work as a professor, Brinker is also the assistant dean for clinical affairs at WSU.
Brinker said she’s enjoyed her 18-year teaching career.
“Each day is different, each semester is different,” she said. “It’s been a pleasure to help grow that next generation.”
She does miss working in hospitals, however.
“I get to be there with students,” she said. “It’s still near and dear to me.”
She encourages her students to make a 10-year career plan, but tells them the plan should be etched in Jell-O, not stone.
“You have to be open to opportunities,” she said.
Brinker is involved in several state and national organizations and said part of her focus now is on growing resources.
She also spends time promoting nursing as a career to students in local schools, but said she’s not the one who does most of the talking. She likes to invite one of her nursing students to speak, particularly if he or she is a minority and has an interesting story to share.
If a high school student can see themselves in that nursing student, then they are likely to be more open to the idea of nursing as a career, Brinker said.
“My role often is to determine who might resonate with students,” she said. “I’m trying to be more of a connector and a mentor rather than a doer.”
That’s a strategy she brings to the classroom, where she focuses on the students.
“To me, it’s about learning about them, where they are, and offering encouragement and support,” she said.
Brinker said she was taken aback when she learned she had been given a Woman of Achievement Award because she thought so many others were more deserving.
“It was humbling,” she said. “There’s a lot of unsung heroes in the community who impact the YWCA mission.”
Brinker thinks it’s appropriate that she earned the award in the International Year of the Nurse and said she hopes her time in the spotlight can lead to more interest in the wide variety of nursing careers available. She said she hopes young women can see something of themselves in her story.
“That’s what it’s about,” she said. “It’s not about me as an individual, it’s about shining the light on nurses around the world and in our community.”
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