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.