I was delighted to have the opportunity recently to speak to a group of nursing students at the University of Maine. It gave me a chance to touch base with some important, defining transitions in my own life and to advocate for two of my personal passions: public health and the news media. I enjoy talking about my 15-year nursing career, my unplanned transition into journalism and the surprising intersections and commonalities that continue to reveal themselves.
I first met Kelley Strout, an assistant professor of nursing at UMaine, last spring, when she was working with a group of nursing and nutrition students to establish a raised-bed gardening project at a low-income senior housing facility in Brewer.
I was on hand to write a story about the project, which aimed to promote physical activity, social interaction and better access to fresh produce for the residents, ultimately paying off in improved health status. The project is a great example of an affordable, cross-generational, community-based public health intervention. By writing about it, I hoped to inspire other groups to undertake senior garden projects of their own.
In the process of interviewing Strout, I shared with her my own background in nursing. I told her I had practiced in many different health care settings, learning important lessons in each but never really finding my professional niche. She asked a few questions, then inquired whether I would be willing to come speak to her students in the fall about those experiences and my decision to make a mid-career change.
So on Wednesday afternoon, I was in Jenness Hall at UMaine in Orono. I was a little nervous, as I always am in public speaking situations. I didn’t have good notes. I was having an especially bad hair day. The classroom was full; about 30 young adults, mostly women, sat in quiet rows looking at me. They were all in their final year of the nursing program. Strout sat in the back row and smiled encouragingly.
I told the students about my own decision, back in my unfocused 20s, to enter nursing. It was no great passion or idealism that had guided that choice, I said, but rather pragmatism. There were lots of jobs in nursing. They offered flexible hours and paid well. Nurses worked in all kinds of settings, in every part of the country and all over the world. There were opportunities to advance into a clinical specialty, teaching or administration.
So I got myself into the nursing program at the University of Maine at Augusta. After I graduated and passed my licensing exam, I worked six years at Eastern Maine Medical Center then switched over to home care, both geriatrics and pediatrics. Later, I worked as a school nurse and in a nursing home.
In each setting, I learned more about people and the factors that went into their health status. I also learned about our health care system, and I had the deep satisfaction of knowing my work made a real difference in the lives of others.
At the time, I told Strout’s students, I felt some frustration that I wasn’t digging in to any of these specialty areas, or building a stronger nursing career. But in retrospect, I understood that this extended tour of duty was informing me deeply in important ways and preparing me for the work I do now.
When I accepted my first reporting job in 1999, I found myself drawing on many of the basic lessons I had learned in nursing. Be observant. Don’t jump to conclusions. Ask the right question in the right way at the right time. Take good notes. Be correct. Be thorough. Know when to keep a confidence, and when not to.
My years of nursing paid off as I interviewed doctors and policy makers, reported on new medical procedures, explored changes in the insurance industry and generally established myself as a credible writer and resource.
The combination of nursing and journalism has extended my ability to reach more people with information they need to know, whether it’s about an unfolding disease outbreak, the cost of a mammogram or how to grow a community garden with low-income seniors. I view my work now as a kind of public health intervention and a kind of public service. And that’s very satisfying.
I hope the students heard my most important point. “Don’t ever feel boxed in by your decisions,” I told them.
We all have to make high-stakes choices in our lives — about education, careers, relationships, finances and more. Almost always, though, we can make changes, even big changes, as we learn more about ourselves and what we value. And in sometimes surprising ways, the lessons we learn along the way become more relevant over time.
Read more of Meg Haskell at livingitforward.bangordailynews.com.