Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 6, 2006|Volume 35, Number 5















YSN student Sylvia Parker chose nursing over medicine because "I saw how there are limitations on the amount of time a doctor can spend with their patients. ... I want to be be able to be with patients, to talk with them and get to know them."

YSN student carrying on
family tradition of healing

On the day she was scheduled to go off to college, Sylvia Parker walked around the Oklahoma house where her grandmother had raised her and thought, "I can't do it. I can't leave."

Crying, she approached her grandmother to tell her that she had changed her mind: It was not possible to leave behind the person who had so lovingly nurtured her.

Parker's grandmother grabbed the younger woman's hand, pressed it up to her aching heart, and said, consolingly, "I'll always be right here."

Some 20 years later, the memory of that encounter still brings tears to the eyes of Parker, a second-year student at the Yale School of Nursing (YSN), who decided to pursue a career in that field after observing the sub-par care her ill grandmother was given before her death about five years ago.

And it was her grandmother who Parker thought about when the challenges of her first year at the nursing school seemed overwhelming. In the difficult times, she wished her grandmother could have been there to encourage her.

One night, while Parker was thinking about her experiences as a nursing student and her interactions with patients during a clinical rotation, her grandmother and other relatives in her close-knit Native American family crept into her consciousness. She especially recalled the words her aunt spoke to her the summer before she came to Yale: "You come from a long line of healers," her aunt reminded her before embracing her.

That memory, and Parker's awareness of the pride that her extended Comanche Indian family feels about her accomplishments, inspired the nursing student's personal essay "You come from a long line of healers," one of three pieces to be awarded the School of Nursing's 2006 Creative Writing Awards. The other winning entries were written by Anna-leila Williams, a first-year doctoral student at YSN, and Laura Fitzgerald, who graduated from YSN last May.

The awards were established three years ago to give students an opportunity to share their personal nursing experience in narrative form and to give others a glimpse of nurses' real-world experiences. All YSN nurses are encouraged to write a short narrative each year; the winning entries are selected by a panel of judges that includes professional writers.

"I wrote my piece in my head at 2 a.m.," says Parker. "Linda Pellico [YSN professor and the originator of the Creative Writing Awards] is always telling us how important it is to write and to journal but I never had the time. Somehow, in that moment, everything came together for me: the sacrifices my grandmother made for me and how she encouraged me to grow, my aunt's words, and a semester where I really learned about nursing -- all the work, all the knowledge and all the caring that goes into it."

In her award-winning piece, Parker tells of how two of her relatives made the choice before her to enter healing professions: her great-grandmother, who was a traditional Native American medicine woman, and her uncle, a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health who integrated traditional Native American healing with modern medicine in his work with area local tribes in Arizona. She describes her own insecurity as she learns to care for patients, trying to be both a knowledgeable professional and a compassionate caregiver. (See excerpt, below.)

Parker says she first envisioned for herself a career in art. One of just a few members of her extended family to go to college, she earned a B.F.A. in fine art at Oklahoma City University, and received a number of recognitions for her painting and photographs. Unwilling to cave in to the pressure to create more profitable, quick-selling Indian art, Parker -- who has also worked in a photo lab and as an EKG technician -- decided to enroll in a postgraduate pre-med program, with the intention of becoming a doctor. But after observing nurses and nurse practitioners as they tended to patients -- as well as seeing her grandmother receive less-than-quality care when she was sick -- she had "a change of heart," she says.

"I saw how there are limitations on the amount of time a doctor can spend with their patients, and also found the preventative-health philosophy of nursing appealing," explains Parker. "I witnessed that with a lot of nurse practitioners. And, I want to be able to be with patients, to talk with them and get to know them."

In addition, Parker has never forgotten an experience she had as a young girl, when, chronically ill with asthma, she was tended to by a Native American medicine man. She remembers him pulling out eagle feathers, singing over her and saying Indian prayers.

"It brought me a lot of peace," she says of that encounter.

Parker says that peyote meetings and powwows "are a tremendous foundation for healing among her family members and Comanches," and she has a lot of respect for her uncle, who served as a bridge between the traditions of Native American healing and Western medicine.

"He worked with people who were very resistant to Western medicine," she says. "But sometimes, they needed it. He helped them to feel comfortable in that space. He also had a huge influence on me in terms of evaluating what is important to me as an individual person and important to me as an Indian woman."

Her Native American tradition has shaped her in many ways, Parker says. She is concerned about the high rate of diabetes and related illnesses among Native American populations, and believes that much more can be done to prevent them. While meeting with patients in their homes during a community health rotation last year, she was disconcerted after meeting socially isolated elderly patients, some of whom have family who stay at a distance.

"In native tribes, elders are so important to the social function, such an integral part of life as a whole. My uncle used to say, 'We have to care for our elders and our children: we have no choice in that,'" recalls Parker, who is the mother of a three-year-old daughter.

Parker has chosen geriatric nursing as her specialty, and hopes to write about the loneliness of neglected older people. Her partner, an accomplished poet, has encouraged the YSN student to do more with her writing talent.

"For a time after my grandmother died, I wrote a lot about how she's not here physically but is still here -- about living in the world without people you love," says Parker. "But I hadn't written much since then. Since winning the Creative Writing Award, I've been approached by a lot of people who read my piece or heard me read it at Yale-New Haven Hospital and said they liked it. I've never thought of myself as a writer, but I've been very grateful for the response."

Whether or not she continues to write, Parker knows she will be surrounded by stories, including those told by her patients. "Oral tradition is a big part of Indian culture," she says, adding, "One of the things I most enjoyed about meeting elderly people was listening to their life stories."

-- By Susan Gonzalez

'A long line of healers'

An excerpt from Parker's award-winning story follows. In this section, she describes her encounter with an elderly patient:

"Her chart read non-responsive, doesn't communicate. Then why did she speak with her eyes every time we turned her to change the dressing on her stage IV ulcer? Her eyes became her voice to me. A voice of loneliness. I brought her a little stuffed monkey on a Saturday. Ask before you visit a patient, they said. Ask? Why? I wanted to give her time, my time. I was taught to go when your elders called. She called me and I went. We talked, I asked her about cooking and children. She smiled about her cooking. She attempted to speak about her children, but only tears came. So I sang her an Indian song, a prayer of healing and hope. As I kissed her head good-bye, I listened one last time. Don't you ever forget, you come from a long line of healers. And I left her holding my heart. I left with a voice of hope."

The complete text of Parker's narrative, and the other winners of the 2006 Creative Writing Awards can be viewed at http://nursing.yale.edu/Development/CreativeWriting/.


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