Becoming a nurse: Meet Emily Petersen – Nurse Recruiter

Becoming a nurse: Meet Emily Petersen

We are pleased to announce that we have selected Emily Petersen, a nursing student at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, as the next recipient of our Scholarship grant.

With the NurseRecruiter Scholarship, we want to encourage promising future nurses who have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to achieve remarkable things. Emily definitely fits the bill! We were impressed with her commitment to public service, the diversity of her experiences and activities and, above all, her passion for nursing and helping others.

Emily has worked as a professor at Huazhong University in Wuhan, China, as AmeriCorps volunteer, and as program manager at an environmental non-profit. But she doesn’t see her transition to the nursing profession as one “away from an unrelated career and into the medical field,” she stressed. Instead, she convincingly describes her indefatigable work across those different fields as part of the same storyline, which now has her “settling into the work I have been preparing for all along.”

We know Emily is going to be an amazing nurse, and we are delighted that we are able to make a small contribution to her nursing education. We were impressed by the way she describes the questions that drove her to volunteering and interning at a hospital, the impressions it made on her, and the determination that experience instilled in her, and we appreciated the expertly informed ways she articulates the issues she has engaged with and her energetic community engagement. We hope you will be as moved and inspired by her story as we were!

Becoming a nurse: Emily’s story

The first morning I walked into the NICU at Texas Children’s Hospital as a volunteer, I immediately followed a nurse to my assigned infant and sank into the shiny red rocking chair next to the tiny bed. When she placed the child in my arms, I felt myself instinctively shrink back into the chair in an attempt to cushion the force of my arms wrapping around her impossibly delicate body. My fingers traced tubes that forecasted even ratios between flesh and plastic on the body and I begged my fingers to not accidentally dislodge any from their precise placement. I wanted to see where the tubes connected, what they might be doing for her. I wondered what kind of plastic the tape was made of, how often they might be changed, how long she would be intubated… what would happen to her next?

The hum of the machines keeping track of her, hydrating her, healing her, somehow lulled me and stimulated me at once. I was stunned into silence and awe of this precarious, precious moment balancing mortality within this little body. She was so small, and still so much bigger than anything else. Learning the craft of nurturing in all its forms has been calling me ever since.

Nursing student and Scholarship winner Emily Petersen

My desire to be of service has been unshakable in and out of school. In college I studied English and Biology because I was fascinated by the question, “what does it mean to be alive?” Do we interact with each other out of some divine morality, ascending toward self-conscious fulfillment? Or are we composed of the result of random mutations found beneficial by the forces of physical, biological, and chemical impulses that dictate our survival?

I was compelled to keep addressing these questions in a research and hospital setting. During the summer of 2011 I completed an internship with Dr. Michelle Fingeret, a psychologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. At the same time, with the help of one of my mentors and professors, I was able to convince Texas Children’s Hospital to take me on as an unconventional summer volunteer in the NICU. Three times a week I would arrive at 3 a.m. and rotate around the floor, holding babies and doing whatever else nurses could entrust to me. Then, at 7 a.m., I trekked across to the Texas Medical Center in the stifling heat, and transitioned into my work with Dr. Fingeret. I usually began the morning by transcribing the previous day’s patient interviews on their process of recovering from a mastectomy or partial mastectomy.

Through our background research and these transcriptions, we found that there was strikingly little support available through the hospital for women to better understand the psychological effects that their cancer and subsequent treatment would have on their bodies. Women (and to a lesser extent, men) were concerned that they would appear weak and vain to their doctor if they brought up issues of fear or depression surrounding a mastectomy, and so kept these thoughts to themselves.

Together with Dr. Fingeret, I helped to co-author patient education materials for women undergoing breast cancer. Additionally, I assisted with a concurrent project that used 3D imaging and plasticity tools designed by engineering faculty at the University of Texas at Austin to measure and predict how an individual body would respond to surgery. If you could provide a patient with a projected image of what they would look like post-operation, would we see benefits to their mental and physical health? This work helped to not only stimulate conversation around body image concerns (which have a wide variety of psychological implications) but also to ease the tensions around the unknown outcomes. In the midst of such an intangible as cancer, this was a touchpoint to hope, a less quantifiable factor in healing.

Spurred on by this research, I sought out a two-semester internship at the mental health clinic at Trinity Hospital in Rock Island, Illinois. I worked with a co-occurring mental illness and addiction outpatient group that met bi-weekly at night. I diligently documented case studies of the stories I was hearing when I returned home. These case studies became the foundation of my honors thesis on the influences of and reactions to addiction in modern society.

There were middle-aged men twenty years back from war who had turned to barbiturates as a distraction from the violent ghosts raging in their minds. Young women who had been sexually abused and were now hooked on heroin for an escape from their bodies. Artists, bipolar and dulled by lithium treatments, who turned to narcotics to locate their creativity. People of all ages suffering from chronic pain from accidents and abuse, held hostage by opiates, choked by depression and anxiety. As I observed and wrote, I felt the welling desire in my gut to help ease whatever discomfort I could, in whatever way I could, as I continued to wrestle with the complexity of variations of being alive.

I felt compelled to explore the world outside of research so I flew to Wuhan, China where I had gotten a job as a professor of English at Huazhong University. Despite being hired to teach English grammar for translation majors, I was handed syllabi on my first day to also lead courses in Greco-Roman Mythology and the Old Testament of the Bible. That quick pivot, plus the immeasurable adjustments one makes when living in a foreign culture navigating in a foreign language, was my crash course in adaptability.

After that time abroad, I moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to begin a year of service with the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. There I was placed with the non-profit Husky Sport as a Program Coordinator for the Ready, Set, Read! program. I worked with Clark, MLK, and Wish schools in the North End to develop in-school and after-school nutrition and physical education programming for K-8 students. At the same time, I worked with other Public Allies members who were placed at different non-profits across Hartford to develop a public service project. We hosted community conversations, interviewed residents, and worked with government, corporate, and non-profit partners to put on ImPACT Fest, a city-wide multicultural resources fair we developed as a result of our research. What better way to help than to directly ask people to talk about what they need, and then create solutions from that starting point? This was developing into a recurring theme in my work.

My term with AmeriCorps ended right as I was hired by KNOX, an environmental non-profit in Hartford. For the past three years I served as a Program Manager there, running a network of 20 community gardens in the city as well as developing their education program for children and adults. I created the Urban Roots Workshop series, which consisted of free monthly workshops on environmental topics like tree pruning, mushroom cultivation, and urban beekeeping. I wrote a children’s curriculum that used characters I created myself, such as Wally Worm and Auntie Ant, to teach students about the relationship between their own health and the health of the ecosystem around them. By securing grant funding I was able to not just get ten public art projects into the gardens, including two cob ovens and a garden mural series using a local photographer, but also run a high-school summer program on ecological activism, and revive the annual Hartford Harvest Market.

It’s through this work that I really got to know the dynamics of Hartford’s educational and political system, and all its potential and flaws. My customer service and counseling skills were sharply honed working with the 450 gardeners, addressing their individual desires and concerns. Experiencing the traditions and contributions of the array of humanity in Hartford gave me a sense of urgency to figure out what it takes to get a project off the ground, from grant funding to logistics planning and execution. That’s a resource I’ll hold onto and use for the rest of my life to empower people to heal others, heal themselves, and most importantly, to grow.

My transition to nursing school is not one away from an unrelated career and into the medical field, but rather a settling into the work I have been preparing for all along. My efforts in studying the human condition have ranged from the hospital setting to the classroom to city council meetings. With these experiences in hand, I am now ready to embark upon a career in nursing.

I was intentional in gaining a degree in Biology so as to have the coursework in hand to transition into hospital work. The trick was to figure out in what capacity I wanted to serve. I have debated the respective roles of being a doctor versus being a nurse, but it is the intimate patient care part of a career in nursing that excites me most. I am fascinated by human biology, and want to learn more practically how to treat the systems of the body when things go wrong. I want to learn the fine balance between the technical skills of healing and the less defined emotional ones. For me, serving as a nurse is the purest of ways to help people in their most vulnerable state. We can provide dignity where there may otherwise be shame.

I am particularly interested in neonatal and pediatric intensive care settings. I plan to work as an RN for several years and continue my education to become a Nurse Practitioner so as to participate even more fully in patient care. Having worked for many years as a teacher and having obtained a degree in English, I am confident that I will be a strong, compassionate resource for families looking to grasp the scope and context of their loved one’s situation, as well as for doctors seeking comprehensive and succinct reports on their patients’ status. I am an engaged resident of Hartford, so I’m thrilled to have found the opportunity of enrolling in a well-respected accelerated degree program nearby, at the University of St. Joseph. I plan to continue to contribute to the health and well-being of my home community here in Hartford, advocating for the resources necessary to provide families with the most comprehensive and long-lasting care.

What are your goals?

Are you a talented, motivated future nurse who needs financial support? Tell us your story, apply for a scholarship now!

Do you know a promising nursing student, or do you have friends who might? Spread the word: Five Reasons to tell the people you know about the new scholarship

Are you looking for inspiration? Read about our other scholarship winners:

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