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The Picky Nursing Instructor

by Susan Elizabeth Bartlett about a year ago in teacher

You Could Call Her the Gardner

She said “I’m going to weed you out” and my breath stopped in my throat.

It was the second semester of Nursing school and the first semester I would be going to our local hospital for clinical experience, not sitting in an auditorium taking notes. This can’t be right, I thought. She must be joking. However, the tall mahogany-skinned instructor set her mouth in a straight line and didn’t break into a smile.

Professor Susie Forehand petrified me. I saw her as a barrier to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN). Extra hours on my patient care plans decreased some anxiety, but in the afternoon, having completed tasks like wound care and vital signs, my stomach still knotted when our group sat together and waited for her. I’d never had an instructor unnerve me as much as she.

Then one day, Professor Forehand opened up and my perspective started to change.

After clinical, we met, as usual, in a small room by the business offices on the second floor. The eight of us sat in a semi-circle with a lone chair positioned opposite the arc. I murmured small pieces of my day to the student on my left but quieted when she entered.

She sat — a posture fit for royalty.

“Today I’m going to start by telling all of you about myself.”

She went on to share an inspiring story.

Becoming a nurse was her dream. Raised in a large family that had a meager income, Susie Forehand knew from an early age what it meant to do without. Her uncle, a pastor, taught her, no matter what, the importance of giving back.

In high school she worked every Saturday for a $1 an hour, gave part to her parents and saved the rest while maintaining high grades. After graduation she married her High school sweetheart. He became a Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and deployed quickly. Despite him being gone for two years, Mrs. Forehand continued to pursue advancing her education. Because of segregation she had to move closer to an all-Black junior college in Daytona Beach.

On her husband’s return, they moved back to Orlando and she started working as an LPN.

This is when I noticed she was looking at each of us, seeking out direct eye contact.

“It was 1966 when I started working at this hospital.”

I remember her pausing and now understand that she was waiting to see if the year had any significance to us.

“All African – American patients had to be in the basement and we black nurses were able to take care of them only. When we were finally able to work on other units, we were called names all the time. Some patients even threw things at us.”

She never dropped her chin or lowered her eyes. No anger laced her words. No silent plea for sympathy.

“It was like this for a long time, “she said.

Mrs. Forehand gave an example of a patient on the fourth floor that made defamatory remarks to her every day for two weeks. She also explained how she asked his doctor repeatedly for his wound care to be twice, not once a day, because she knew that was the only way it would heal. And it did. She went on to share that she continued studying while working full time, got her RN license, helped open the hospital’s first burn unit, and went on for her Master’s degree.

“Never stop learning. Never.” she stressed.

Mrs. Forehand said that to teach Nursing was one of her goals and that’s why she was with us.

“I take my job seriously. I need to know that, when you get out of here, your patients will be well taken care of.”

She wasn’t trying to scare us; she was trying to do her job the best she could. I understood her better now. I admired so much that, in her mind, it wasn’t about her but about the patients, always about the patients.

I wanted Susie Forehand’s approval. To me, her approval was a mark that I was getting it right. I wanted to be a nurse like her. It wasn’t fear, it was awe I now had.

I’d never met anyone who participated in the Civil Rights movement like she had, who had sat at counters and had drinks thrown at her, took care of patients who scorned her skin color and spit on her when she passed medications. And through it all, she kept wanting to be a better person — to keep growing, taking on new challenges, to contribute to the growth of the hospital she worked for.

Two months later, I stood at the medication cart preparing to be quizzed. Before being able to independently pass medications to an entire team, I had to be able to explain to Mrs. Forehand the purpose and side effect of each medication for a group of five patients.

She walked with purpose down the tiled floor toward me. I took a deep breath.

I can do this. I’m ready.

By the time I got to the third patient’s medications, my nerves got the best of me. I drew a blank on the side effects of Losartan, a blood pressure medication. I grew warm and a drop of sweat literally dripped from my forehead to the outer edge of my brow.

Mrs. Forehand noticed it.

“You are so nervous. Sweat coming off you.”

She said this quietly so only I could hear. She could have, but she didn’t laugh and make fun of me. Then Professor Forehand said something surprising.

“You’re not going to know everything, but I want you to know how to find the answer.”

She stood motionless after making this statement. So did I. Anyone walking by might have thought I was having a panic attack.

What would I do? What would I do?

It was a long sixty seconds before I saw the Mosby Drug Handbook in a side slot on the cart. Not waiting for her permission, I snatched it, looked up Losartan and blurted out the side effects in rapid succession.

“Good. I’m glad you figure out what to do. You passed.”

I looked at her, my mouth agape.

She smiled, the first I’d ever seen. “That’s the one and only open book test I’ve ever and will ever give.”

Her compassion extended to not just the patients. When necessary, she gave it to us also. My confidence grew.

In thirty-four years of working as a Registered Nurse, despite all the changes in the Health industry, patient care has always filled my cup. And here’s the reason for that:

Mrs. Susie Forehand taught me that it’s a privilege to have people trust you when they are ill. That valuable lesson is soaked into my core. When I receive any recognition from leadership, I shake my head. This career is a gift all by itself, and without Professor Forehand, I might have never seen it that way. She didn’t just help me down the path to becoming a RN, she helped me avoid the things that could result in stumbling or falling, things like cynicism, apathy, or negligence. She was tough. She kept us humble, and it’s a good thing.

Personal challenges could have resulted in me being a fifty-five-year-old nurse anxious to retire, groaning about the physical nature of the job, blind to the amazing people you meet in this field of healthcare. Professor Forehand stopped that from happening. She set the bar for not only the kind of nurse I aspired to become some thirty- five years ago, but also the kind of person I hope I am and will continue to be as long as I am here on earth.

To call Susie Forehand a mentor does little to describe all the ways she has enriched my life.

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Susan Elizabeth Bartlett
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Susan Elizabeth Bartlett

I'm a nurse who has found writing to be a forum for expressing all the emotions that come with the experience of taking care of people at their most vulnerable.

See all posts by Susan Elizabeth Bartlett

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