Author Archives: Beth Toner

What Would Melanie Do?

Jun 25, 2013, 11:20 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

 A critical response medical team walking in a hospital corridor.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has long been committed to the improvement of nursing education—and to supporting academic progression in nursing. While nursing shortages may wax and wane, it’s clear that the baby boomers will need high-quality nursing care as they move into later life. Meanwhile, nursing schools turn away more than 75,000 qualified applicants each year.

In short, really good nurse educators have never been more necessary, yet they are increasingly in short supply. Last week, we lost one of the best I’ve ever known.

I heard about Melanie’s death, sadly, the way we sometimes do when we’ve lost touch with people—via a community college classmate on social media. Melanie had learned she had pancreatic cancer in January—and given a grim prognosis; in the end, she lived less than five months after diagnosis, dying far too young—at the age of 58. In the first awful moment, I felt a crush of regret that I’d learned of her death this way. And then I found myself smiling, thinking of when I’d first met Melanie on a warm August night in 2008—squeezed into a stuffy and cramped classroom with 31 other people in a room better suited for 15.

We were, all of us, first-year nursing students on our very first day of nursing school. We were, in many respects, a motley crew—ranging in age from our early 20s to our early 60s (I was somewhere in the middle). Stay-at-home moms rejoining the paid workforce, retired Army medics, and second-career students (like me) all shared one emotion that evening: fear. How would we manage full-time day jobs and evening/weekend classes and clinicals? From studying material that was completely foreign to me—with what felt (at the time) like a worthless master’s degree in journalism—to learning tasks that seemed incredibly complicated (how could I stick a needle in another human being?), I didn’t feel up to the task ahead. What the heck had I been thinking? Me? A nurse?

Melanie gave us an overview of the semester ahead. She calmly answered each agonized question we asked her. As she wrapped up her remarks, she smiled at her nervous charges and said, “I know you feel overwhelmed right now, and you feel like there’s so much to do. I’ll just remind you that you can do this the same way you’d eat an elephant: one piece at a time.”

It was exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right time. Melanie would repeat those words to me—often just saying “one piece at a time”—when she saw me in the hallway, agonizing over a clinical skill I hadn’t mastered or a lab value I couldn’t remember, more times than I can remember. I would often come to class exhausted and near tears from a grim day in corporate America, but Melanie would, with her real-life stories of patients to illustrate that night’s lecture, remind me why I had decided to become a nurse in the first place. We knew her for her pithy summary of the most obvious fact (“smoking is baaaaaaaaaaaaad!” she would say in a near-hiss), but also for her fierce love of, and advocacy for, each and every patient.

I made it through nursing school, passed the NCLEX, and thought of Melanie as I worked weekends in long-term care. If my patient had been Melanie’s mom, what would she have wanted me to do for her? When I felt as if I couldn’t make it through my first night shift alone, I remembered Melanie’s words of advice on that first day.

I thought of her again last week, and realized what a loss the world of nursing education suffered with her passing. It’s not only important to support our nurse educators—and to encourage others to join their ranks—but to thank them for sharing their love of nursing and their patients with us. I never got to say a proper “thanks” to Melanie. But you can bet that I’ll remind each nursing student I see that she (or he) can get there, one piece at a time.

Standing on the Shoulders of Angels

Jun 10, 2013, 9:37 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

nursevets-0004

Sixty-nine years ago, on June 6, 1944, a 25-year-old Army captain from New Hampshire parachuted into the Normandy countryside outside the small French village of Sainte-Mère-Église as part of the Allied invasion known as D-Day. A member of the fledgling 82nd Airborne Division, he would count himself lucky to survive that jump,  three other World War II combat jumps, and the Battle of the Bulge. A self-described “career Army man,” he would go on to fight in both the Korean and Vietnam wars—and marry my mother in 1988. I was already living on my own when they married, so I had only occasional opportunities to get to know him.

While he could be curmudgeonly and opinionated, Colonel Robert M. Piper (I called him “The Colonel” throughout his life) was also brilliant and generous. My biggest regret is that I didn’t learn enough about the history in which he so actively participated until it was too late. The last time he set foot in that small village was in 2004, the 60th anniversary of the invasion. He passed away in 2007, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

View Full Post

A Big Week for Big Health Data

Jun 5, 2013, 4:30 PM, Posted by Beth Toner

Health Datapalooza Graphic

It’s been a great week to be a self-proclaimed “health data geek.” Here at the Foundation, we announced the launching of the Health Data Exploration Project at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (housed at the University of California-San Diego). The project will explore how to bring individuals and companies who collect day-to-day health data (via smart phones and other tools) together with health researchers to uncover insights into personal and population health. You can read more about this project on RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas.

We also announced the $120,000 RWJF Hospital Price Transparency Challenge, which asks applicants to create data visualizations and applications to help people compare what different hospitals charge.

Finally, a number of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation staff came together at the fourth Health Datapalooza—the annual event put together by the Health Data Consortium, of which RWJF is a founding sponsor. The conference is a forum that features the newest and most innovative and effective uses of health data by companies, startups, academics, government agencies and individuals. Want to learn more about what went on there? Feel free to read our “Dispatches From Datapalooza,” starting here.

Want to learn more about health data?