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Saint Mary’s celebrates rich history of nursing, looks to the future

| Monday, February 4, 2019

Editor’s note: Throughout the 2019 calendar year, Saint Mary’s College is celebrating its 175th year as an institution.  This is the first installment in a series exploring facets of the history and community at Saint Mary’s.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave tribute to the nuns of the battlefield, Saint Mary’s very own Sisters of the Holy Cross.

“More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art, so long devoted to the illustration of love, mercy and charity, are the picture that remain of those modest sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and dying,” Lincoln said of the nuns.

Gina Twardosz | The Observer

In the Our Lady of Peace Cemetery on the Saint Mary’s College campus, sisters that worked as Civil War nurses are honored with additional headstones recognizing their service.

Since the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, only eighteen years after having established themselves in the United States, the Sisters have answered a call to serve as nurses, and since then, Saint Mary’s has sought to further this legacy through the education of nursing and become an innovative leader in the field of nursing.

Sister Maureen Grady, senior lecturer in nursing, was a nurse who spent over twenty years in the Middle East assisting with the medical and social crises that arose because of war and social conflict. She said she spent nine years answering a call in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

Grady said the history of the Sisters is important and their legacy can inspire students and help them discover their own vocation.

“I do a cemetery walk with the students and I talk about the Sisters and the [American] Civil War,” she said. “In the Civil War, there were no hospitals or interns, or any nursing education, so overnight, these women stepped out of Saint Mary’s and their comfortable life and went to the warzone.”

During these walks, Grady said she discusses a lot of things with the future nurses of the world. Mostly, she recalls the legacy of the Sisters, from Sister Veronica Regina Scholl, who, while aboard a mail boat, had a shot pass through her veil, to Mother Angela Eliza Gillespie, who, while ardently operating on a soldier who was near death, failed even to notice the blood that was dripping on her head from above — blood from an unknown soldier.

The first nursing education did not exist until 1872, yet in 1861, the Sisters of the Holy Cross answered a call to serve. At the request of Father Sorin, twelve Sisters, with six to follow, reported to Ulysses S. Grant in Cairo, Illinois where they would soon be split up among North and South, nursing soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross inspire Grady, and she said she hopes they inspire her students as well.

But, nursing is not solely a profession of the past; the Saint Mary’s Department of Nursing is on the cutting edge of advanced education for nursing students, and Grady said she also finds inspiration in her colleagues at the College.

Grady said Linda Paskiewicz, director of nursing, is an innovative and creative person who helped create a course on communication for the program.

“[Paskewicz] had the courage to begin a course in communication, because it’s not just what you do to alleviate pain or suffering … it’s about connecting, on a human level, with people who are in a very vulnerable situation,” Grady said. “Other schools just don’t have this type of class.”

Paskiewicz said she started her career in nursing in a hospital-based diploma program, most of which no longer exist as more and more students are encouraged to study nursing in a higher educational setting.

“Nurses are always learning, and they have to be always learning,” she said. “Technology changes all the time, and new medications and procedures are always there.”

To fit the ever-changing field of nursing, Paskiewicz and her colleagues worked to develop a graduate program in nursing at Saint Mary’s. She said the program is hybrid and online, so it can serve students all across the country.

“Our program takes students straight out of the bachelor’s program and moves them all the way to the doctorate degree,” she said. “This is the way nation is going, too. We were early to adapt to this change and, as of now, we’re admitting our fifth cohorts.”

Paskiewicz said that the nation’s hospitals are realizing that nurses with advanced degrees provide a “different level of care and assessment, so more and more hospitals are requiring that nurses have at least a bachelor’s degree.”

Yet, this need for nurses with advanced degrees poses a problem in terms of accessibility. Paskiewicz said this push for education does not help to alleviate the nursing shortages around the country, as many students may not have the ability nor income to support their higher educational needs.

“Hospitals are pulling back on how much they reimburse nurses for going back to school, and many men and women in nursing have families — they have bills to pay — so there’s many personal factors that impact a nurse’s decision to go back to school,” she said.

Along with this push for more education, there is a concern for a different kind of education, an education that facilitates an awareness for the kinds of social justice issues that plague the country. Both the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs look to include these social justice issues in their courses, Paskiewicz said.

“We teach and talk about the social determinants of health, things like education, environment — things that put people at risk for poorer health,” she said. “These things lend themselves to health disparities in impoverished or marginalized populations. Nurses are inherently involved in all of this.”

Paskiewicz said she teaches a class devoted to these issues called Social Entrepreneurship and the Business of Healthcare. She said the class focuses on identifying and brainstorming solutions to health problems across communities.

Creating these sorts of innovative classes takes forward thinking, and some past thinking too, as Paskiewicz said the Data Analytics class for nursing students was inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

“When she worked with hospitals, she used all this data and was able to create change through a healthcare system in order to solve a problem,” she said.

All in all, Paskiewicz said Saint Mary’s nurses continue to be some of the most competitive in the field.

“I wanted to work with smart women, and when I came here, I felt like I could make a difference,” she said. “We’re helping students become clinical experts, leaders within hospital systems. We’re helping them bring meaningful change that will ultimately improve health outcomes.”

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

Contact Gina