The Gift

From The Floor

The Gift

What has your nursing career brought you?

By Genevieve M. Clavreul, RN, Ph.D.
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As a nurse, I’m always aware of the ways my chosen path has enriched my life and the unique opportunities nursing has afforded me. For every combative patient or surly doctor who has tested my patience, I’ve been rewarded with many more instances of unexpected warmth, generosity and kindness.

Some of the first rewards of my nursing journey came well before my RN licensure, back when I first arrived on these shores as the young wife of a noncommissioned Army officer. Determined to pay for LVN school on my own, I was working as a waitress at a local diner in DeRidder, La., a very small town. I was amazed at the encouragement and support the citizens of DeRidder offered me in my quest. Of course, some might credit my tip-earning ability to the fact that I was a 20-year-old French girl with a cute accent, but I believe that many of my patrons took pleasure in seeing a young immigrant woman carving out her own piece of the American Dream.

I also worked at our base’s officer’s club, where the officers would designate their tips as “school money.” These generous gratuities insured that I never had to worry about paying for my tuition, books or lab fees.

Mentors, Tornadoes and Snakes

As a newly minted licensed practical nurse (LPN) in Topeka, Kan., I had the good fortune of working in a local Episcopalian home, where I experienced a bit of role reversal: My patient, Pearl Menninger (the widow of Dr. Charles F. Menninger, the founder of the Menninger Clinic), took me under her wing and became my mentor. Her wisdom, encouragement and advice helped to guide me as I pursued additional education to obtain my RN license.

That pursuit was interrupted by the devastating tornado that struck Topeka in June 1966. The disaster gave me and every healthcare professional in Topeka an unexpected opportunity to exercise our skills, training and knowledge, caring for the many residents who were injured or lost their homes in one of the worst tornadoes in memory.

Later, our little family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where I added a new skill to my repertoire: wielding a mean machete as the designated family snake-killer. Our home was situated near a khlong (what canals are called in Thailand), which made our yard a virtual snake nirvana. My experience fending off slithering intruders allowed me to make the acquaintance of a base physician who was also an amateur herpetologist. He had issued standing orders that base personnel bring him any snake they found, and as the local nurse, that responsibility often fell to me. I made many long drives to the base with a writhing serpent sealed in a jar so that the doctor could identify the species. If I was lucky, he’d also conscript me to assist him in “milking” some of his specimens for their venom!

Another of my more harrowing adventures in nursing put me in the midst of the diphtheria outbreak that rocked San Antonio, Texas, in 1970. Diphtheria was so rare in the U.S. that many of my healthcare colleagues had only read about the disease in textbooks. However, for a transplant from France, the symptoms were all too familiar, an unpleasant reminder of friends and neighbors who had succumbed to this dreaded illness.

An Outpouring of Support

I filed for divorce in the early 1970s, when we were living in Columbus, Ga. My husband had convinced me that in the conservative Deep South, being a woman — and a resident alien, at that — seeking a divorce would count against me. When the divorce trial made the front page of our hometown paper, I feared the worst.

Instead, I was shocked to see dozens of parents whose children I’d cared for in our local hospital’s PICU come to my defense. These good, solid Southern Baptist folks sat in the courtroom, prepared to offer testimony for a nurse they knew only from days spent waiting at the bedside of their critically ill children. Those parents not only felt compelled to speak up for me — something I never asked for, but definitely welcomed — they also reassured me. Despite my husband’s scare tactics about women and immigrants having no rights, in the South at that time, the mother always got the kids.

Homophobia and Nursing Care

Years later, while pursuing further education to advance my nursing career, I wrote a research paper for one of my classes on the impact of homophobia on nursing care. The publication of that paper, one of the first psychosocial studies of AIDS, would take me beyond nursing and place me at the forefront of the politics and scientific discoveries surrounding the disease that would later be known as HIV/AIDS.

Shortly after I relocated to California, my paper made its way to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The recognition I received for that work gave me the opportunity to meet one of the NIH’s lead scientists, Dr. Robert Gallo, and enabled me to meet and work with many of the luminaries in HIV/AIDS research.

That experience opened the door to a second career in lobbying and advocacy in state houses across the country and in Congress. It taught me how one individual can make an impact on public policy and in turn on people’s lives.

Since my training as a PICU/NICU nurse was much in demand, I was able to work pretty much wherever and whenever I wanted to, using the money I earned to support my philanthropic efforts on behalf of those affected by HIV/AIDS. Skills I had learned as a bedside nurse allowed me to help patients as they fought their medical battles, while the interpersonal skills I had gained from dealing with fellow nurses and obstinate physicians gave me an edge in dealing with the sometimes over-inflated egos of those involved in the fight.

Spreading Our Wings

Today, nursing continues to be my passion. However, if you think that means I see my profession through rose-colored glasses, I don’t. I’ve worked at the bedside long enough to see all the warts, but I have also seen the very best that our profession has to offer and I know that the best by far outweighs the worst.

Nursing offers us many wonderful and memorable moments. It’s a profession that allows us to spend our careers at the bedside caring for those in need, but also empowers us to stretch our professional and personal wings to do many other great things. Nurses today host radio programs, write influential blogs, spearhead scientific research and even hold elected positions at both the state and federal levels.

What gifts has your nursing career offered you? What will you give back?   

Geneviève M. Clavreul RN, Ph.D., is a healthcare management consultant who has experience as a DON and as a lecturer on hospital and nursing management.

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