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The Magic of Mentorship: Inspirations from my Nursing Career

August 9, 2013

By Diana L. Gallagher MS, RN, CWOCN, CFCN

In my introductory blog, I indulged in a personal journey down memory lane. I looked back fondly at some of the incredible mentors that inspired me and shaped my career. In contemplating this month’s blog, I reviewed that initial post. It became very clear to me that the sage advice that I would offer to myself as a novice nurse is just as applicable today. I wager that these same pearls may apply to you as well.

Mentors are indispensable. We need them to be a part of our lives - for ALL of our lives. Mentors often inspire us. They guide us and, when necessary, push us in the right direction. Often, they see potential that we are unable to recognize or capitalize on without their vision. Historically, they were a source of wise counsel and they still fulfill that role today. Their value can not be minimized as many corporate cultures have implemented formal mentoring programs and recognize their worth in building careers.

I challenge each of you to identify who your mentors are. Some may have been in this special role for years, perhaps since you were a novice. Others may have been added as you have progressed along your career path. In examining who inspires me to be a better nurse, a better certified nurse, and a better person, I realized that those individuals were in vastly different roles. Some are professionals who I aspire to emulate, others are peers who challenge me, and others have no role in nursing at all. Mentors may be found in a variety of settings. Mine have been found through professional organizations, academic settings, and work itself. These wonderful individuals may be a constant or sporadic presence; but, the common reality is that their impact is always profound.

I was honored to attend the WOCN Annual meeting in Seattle, Washington this past June. For me, convention is a time to recharge my batteries, discover new products, and stay abreast of changing technology and evidence in the specialties of wound, ostomy, and continence. One of the premier speakers this year, like many years, was Katherine Jeter, EdD, ET. To no one's surprise, Katherine gave an inspirational, motivational session on the critical value of taking care of ourselves so that we are better prepared to take care of others. I listened intently and was both inspired and motivated yet again by this remarkable leader. I met Katherine when I attended my very first wound care conference. It was an overwhelming experience; everything was so new and exciting. I remember being introduced to Katherine at a social event. I was nobody and she was one of the featured experts. I still remember how she made me feel when she took the time to talk with me at length about who I was and what my role was. When she learned that I was just beginning a new job in a wound care clinic, she generously gave me a "book" she had just written. Wound care was in its infancy and there were not many resources. It was my very first wound care book and I carried it everywhere. Although tattered and dated, it still resides in my bookcase. Needless to say, I was inspired then and continue to be inspired today.

Joanna Cook, RN, CDE is another mentor of mine. Although Joanna is specialized in diabetic management, she has little interest in titles. The one title that she cares about is the "RN" that she proudly carries after her name. Joanna provides a living example of all that is good about nursing. She possesses a true passion that is all too rare today. Joanna was "called" to nursing as a second career. She completed her nursing education, earned her nursing degree and began work. I met Joanna later in our careers and from our first meeting, I was simply in awe. Her knowledge and skill level were equal to that of a nursing professor. Great nursing, however, is so much more than solid clinical skills. It is a seamless blending of those great skills with compassion, caring, and an innate sense of what the human spirit needs. Joanna simply knows. Her commitment to patients, consistently going above and beyond anyone's expectations, making everyone feel special and cared for are all part of what Joanna offers on a daily basis. Joanna Cook is a nurse's nurse and sets the bar very high for all of us.

Mentors may come into our lives as a pleasant surprise. I met Virginia Benefiel, RN, almost three years ago. I was presenting at a wound care conference. She sat in the front row, paid close attention and asked pertinent and challenging questions. Every year, we have reconnected several times including at that same conference. Continuing education is important to Virginia. After all, she has a nursing license to maintain. Katherine Jeter may have challenged us with, "You are never too old; You are never too busy" but Virginia lives that advice every day. Nursing was her first and only career beginning in 1948. She turned 88 this year and continues to work as a nurse. Her nursing career today is in the free clinic that she organized to provide care to the uninsured and underinsured individuals in her community. She has not only inspired me, but obviously has inspired all of the nurses and physicians that she has recruited to staff her clinic. I am not alone. Everyone who meets Virginia Benefiel, RN is inspired.

Every single one of us who attended the Wound Ostomy Continence Nursing Education Program (WOCNEP) at Emory University would probably list Dorothy Doughty, MN, RN, CWOCN, FAAN as one of their mentors. It is impossible not to be inspired to be the BEST wound ostomy continence nurse possible when you have Dorothy encouraging you. The relationship between faculty and student is a clearly defined responsibility that covers a specified period of time. Dorothy's guidance and encouragement during that time frame may be an expectation, but for so many of us, that relationship has continued throughout our careers. I remember in the first few years after attending the program, having Dorothy's phone number at hand was my "security blanket." Over the years, the number of calls have decreased and the focus has changed, but that number is no less valuable to me. Even with her hectic schedule, she always makes time to answer our calls, offers redirection when we are stumped by an unusual challenge and follows up with us when it is appropriate. When we are successful, she encourages us to share our findings to help others solve that same problem. In doing so, she cleverly elevates us into the role of a mentor. Through her role as the director of Emory's WOCNEP, Dorothy has touched countless lives. Some benefited directly and countless more indirectly as she has guided so many pairs of hands around the world. Her's is a legacy that will live forever.

When you are young, it is hard to realize that everyone has something they can teach you. I believe most of us learn this lesson when we realize that our parents may have been just a bit wiser than we gave them credit for as teenagers. In our professional life, the same is true. It may have been a unit secretary or a nursing assistant or a patient who had a lesson to teach you. It is over time and through experience, that we learn that everyone is blessed with special skills and everyone has something to offer. Shannon Hogan has been a part of my life for nearly thirty years. When I met Shannon, she had been hired by my director as a nursing assistant on a hectic ICU step-down unit. Shannon was not your typical hire for this unit. Nursing assistants were normally nursing students working to gain additional experience or very experienced and certified nursing assistants. Shannon was neither. Shannon was born with a chromosomal anomaly. She was short of stature, wore bilateral hearing aids, and had some very real imitations. Shannon, however, had a heart big enough to compensate.

I distinctly remember Shannon in conjunction with the sort of patient that most of us can remember. The patient was terminal. In the days before DRGs, limited admission times and prompt referrals to hospice and palliative care, this patient was assigned to our unit. He had no remaining family and based on visitors, no friends. In spite of good care, he was a curmudgeon. He was on his call light constantly. It seemed as if you had no sooner left his room before he was calling for something else. Needless to say, no one wanted to be assigned to be his nurse. Every attempt had been made to improve the situation without any success. On a morning that had been especially hectic, I realized that the call light had been quiet for hours. My first thought was that the patient had died and went down to his room to begin the process. I stood in the doorway, and again learned that valuable lesson; everyone has something to offer. Shannon was sitting at his bedside, quietly chatting and gently stroking the patient's hand. He was, for the first time in weeks, relaxed and comforted. After a few minutes, Shannon noticed me in the doorway and excused herself. She apologized that she had been tied up for a while and wanted to know if there was something I needed her to do. I asked what she had been doing and who had asked her to do this. Shannon shared that no one had asked her to help. She just thought that the patient was frightened and lonely and knew that this was something she could help with. Without formal education or any serious training, Shannon Hogan knew more about the heart of nursing than any of the nurses had realized. Shannon taught all of us that nursing has to be centered on what the patient needs. This is a lesson that has served me well throughout my career.

This is the first year in a long time that I have not served on a professional board. Volunteering started when I was a student. I was elected to serve at the state and then national level for the National Student Nurses' Association. The commitment to serve has been a common thread throughout my career. I now realize that I am not proficient at saying "NO." Consequently, if I am asked to serve on a committee or task force, I usually agree. After becoming a certified WOC nurse, I served on the initial committees for developing the Professional Growth Portfolio and later for the first board exams for foot care nursing. Both were wonderful experiences. I was both flattered and dumfounded when I was asked to run for the WOCNCB board. Quite honestly, I was shocked when I was actually elected. Serving as a member of the WOCNCB Board of Directors was an honor. The experience of serving on the board rewarded me with an incredible amount of personal and professional growth. A number of board members will be my friends and mentors for life. One of those individuals, stands out more than any of the rest. Patti Gable Burke, BSN, CWOCN served as a board member with me. I then had the honor of serving during her term as WOCNCB President. She set a wonderful example of collaborative leadership; Patti brought people together and made sure everyone's opinions were valued. Patti was one of the voices, perhaps the strongest voice, encouraging me to run for WOCNCB President. During my term, she truly embodied the role of a mentor as she served as my immediate Past President. She offered wise counsel, helped me grow within my role, nudged me in the right direction and helped shape complex decisions. By example, she generously taught me the difference that a mentor can make. Conversations were at least weekly during her formal role and I am happy to say that this pattern has continued. We still call, share difficult patients, personal challenges, and even partner on research initiatives.

Each of these individuals has had a role in shaping the nurse, leader, and person that I am today. I owe each of them a great debt. I challenge each of you to think about who has inspired you...who has consistently made you want to be better...who drives you to excel...and what are those intangible lessons learned only because you had a mentor.

I hope your list is every bit as long as mine. Recognition of the value of mentors and how they have contributed to you and your career is a solid beginning. If you have not found mentors, begin the search. Ask people that you know to give you honest advice and direction. Maintain established contacts and reach out to meet even more people who may help you as you build your career and your life.

The story is only beginning as you find and recognize your mentors. You also have a responsibility to pay it forward. It is not enough to be mentored; you need to be prepared to mentor others. I imagine that you may be reading this and shaking your head in disbelief. I frequently have that same reaction when asked to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I would, however, argue that you are already a mentor to someone. Now is the time to grow and expand that role. What are you going to do to take that role to the next step?

About the Author
Diana Gallagher has over 30 years of nursing experience with a strong focus in wound, ostomy, continence, and foot care nursing. As one of the early leaders driving certification in foot care nursing, she embraces a holistic nursing model. A comprehensive, head to toe assessment is key in developing an individualized plan of care.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of WoundSource, Kestrel Health Information, Inc., its affiliates, or subsidiary companies.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of WoundSource, HMP Global, its affiliates, or subsidiary companies.