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Nola the Nurse and Scharmaine Baker-Lawson, DNP '08

It’s a drizzly morning in Shreveport, LA, but big band jazz pours from the loudspeakers inside the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, and look—a giant mascot dressed as a nurse in a white uniform with a huge afro and long felt lashes is dancing up the aisle. Bodies in puffy coats and sweatshirts twist on the pews to get a good look—hundreds of them, girls and boys in third, fourth, and fifth grades, chanting NO-LA! NO-LA! NO-LA!

Waving to the crowd, Nola the Nurse® reaches the front of the church, and starts to dance with her creator, Dr. Scharmaine Lawson-Baker, DNP ’08. They sway, bump hips, clap. Soon the music settles down and so do the kids, which is good, because Nola and Baker are up from New Orleans to do some educating.

“Have any of you heard of a nurse practitioner?” Baker demands of the crowd.

“NO,” says a little boy in the front row.

“NO?” says Baker, feigning outrage. “Well, see, that’s what I’m here to change.”

Photo by Reginald Dodd. Baker is on the right.

Baker was born in New Orleans, where she was raised by her grandmother. She discovered nursing in high school, and quickly recognized how closely it fit her interests and abilities. Baker earned her BSN from Dillard University and soon moved to Washington DC, where she worked up and down the east coast as a travel nurse. After her grandmother passed away, Baker moved to Nashville, where she earned her MSN on a full scholarship from Tennessee State University and became a family nurse practitioner. Short stints followed as a missionary nurse in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but missing New Orleans, she soon moved back home.

In 2004, she took over a physician’s house call practice, and liked it. The following year she incorporated her own house call practice, Advanced Clinical Consultants. That spring, ACC had about 15 patients. When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, her practice had grown to 100. Baker evacuated, returning in October. By January, her patient roster had quintupled.

“It was just unbelievable,” she says. “I was seeing 20, 25 patients a day. A normal house call schedule is around 10 to 12. But after the hurricane, the community that I was serving just didn’t have anyone else to provide primary care, so I kept going.”

Outraged by the slow and paltry government response, Baker became something of a spokesperson for the state of healthcare in New Orleans after Katrina. “I felt as if we were being ignored down here. My friend and I began calling media outlets. Katie Couric was coming to do a kind of whereare-they-now on New Orleans post-Katrina for CBS Evening News, and the producer said to me ‘Not only does she want to meet you, she wants to do some house calls with you.’” Coverage by other national and local media followed, including The Washington Post and Forbes.

And still she saw patients. Being a primary care provider post-catastrophe was a crash course in environmental, social, and psychological factors that can affect physical health. “I had a patient in his 70’s who was living above a garage because his home had been devastated in the storm,” Baker says. “I was seeing him for months, and his blood pressure was just uncontrollable. He was on like five medications for it.”

“I was thinking about whether I should refer him to cardiology, but there essentially was no cardiology—so few specialists had returned to the city. So I was like ‘You know what, I’m it. I have to figure this out.’”

“Once I started digging into it, I found out that he was panicked that he didn’t have the keys to his FEMA trailer (temporary housing provided to residents whose homes were lost in the storm). He had finally gotten this trailer, but it was useless. Somehow I was able to get that key from FEMA delivered to him, and his blood pressure stabilized. That was a profound experience for me.”

Photo by Reginald Dodd

Back in Shreveport, groups of kids file into a large room to sit on the floor in front of a projector. Baker is up there perched on a chair, and she reads to them from the first Nola the Nurse® book while illustrations from the book display on the screen behind her: Nola chasing her dog Gumbo in an attempt to put a bandage on him. Watching her mom examining a patient at the hospital. Seated at a dining room table with her friend’s family, the mother resplendent in a traditional Kenyan dress.

 It’s an interactive reading, which means Baker peppers it with questions for the audience. One that doesn’t always go the way she wants is the question of what Nola “stands for” (the answer is New Orleans, LA).

“Caring!” says a little boy in a puffy black jacket.

“That’s a good answer, but not the one I’m looking for,” says Baker. “Someone else.” A girl with a big white bow in her hair suggests that Nola stands for helping people get better.

Photo by Reginald Dodd

Nola the Nurse is the 7-year-old star of a series of children’s books that Baker writes. “I could not find any books that would give my daughter an idea of what her mommy does,” she says, also noting the dearth of books featuring African American advanced healthcare practitioners. “And again, coming from my DNP at Chatham—I see a problem; I need to fix it.”

Nola wants to be a nurse practitioner like her mom, and she cares for sick baby dolls in her neighborhood. In each book, she discovers a new culture through traditional foods. There are Nola the Nurse workbooks and activity books, and Baker is working on an animated series. The first book has been translated into French and Spanish, with sales of the Spanish translation on track to surpass sales of the original English version. There’s also a Nola the Nurse doll, complete with dress, head gear and a nurse practitioner bag.

“I started thinking about getting my DNP after Katrina,” says Baker “I knew I needed to have more knowledge about systems and how to effect widespread change. A DNP would allow me to make a bigger impact in the healthcare arena.” “Chatham was the best fit for me because I couldn’t leave my area – we were still dealing with the ground zero catastrophe. I could take classes and still be able to meet the needs of my family and my community post-Katrina.”

At Chatham, her capstone project was on the efficacy of group visits for patients with diabetes. “The outcomes were amazing,” she ways. “Group visits can work really well. People feel good when there are others around them who are going through the same thing, and are often more likely to speak up.”

Baker was fast amassing expertise in house calls, and the requests for consults from other practitioners became overwhelming. In 2008, the year she earned her DNP, she created “The Housecall Course,” a two-day experience encompassing theory and practice (it has been since trimmed down to one day) for nurse practitioners interested in starting their own house call practices in mostly rural areas. Baker has trained over 500 nurses from across America. In 2008, she received the Entrepreneur of the Year by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners magazine, which featured her on the cover. Baker has also been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing (2017) and a fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (2012).

Baker speaks at conferences across the country, often to groups of nurse practitioners, and often about nurse entrepreneurship. But another topic close to her heart is health information technology (HIT). During Katrina, the office space that she had moved her house call practice into was flooded with water up to the ceiling.

“The miracle is that because I didn’t want to drag my patients’ charts into their homes, I’d been using my Palm Pilot to keep track of simple stuff, like their medicines, emergency contacts, whether they’d had a mammogram. It blew my mind that I had all that data and it solidified my belief in HIT. Hospitals couldn’t start because they’d lost their patients’ data, but I had it all right there.”

While Baker still makes some house calls, her primary job today is chief medical officer at Common Ground Health Clinic, a federally qualified healthcare clinic. “Most of our patients are low-income residents who may or may not have insurance or be able to pay,” she says. “I’m still serving my community, but now I have funding and structure. I have other leaders around me and we put our heads together. It’s nice to have that collaboration to effect greater change in this impoverished community.”

Alumna profile: Rita Armstrong, DNP ’14

Rita Armstrong, DNP ’14
Rita Armstrong, DNP ’14

When Rita Armstrong started researching online Doctor of Nursing Practice programs, she did not see herself in Sweden presenting work on diabetic education and self-management to a global audience. “Never in my years did I think I’d be doing that,” she laughs.

Nor did she expect to be speaking at the same conference in Amsterdam in 2018, but she will. Those are just a couple of twists her life has taken since earning her DNP from Chatham in 2014.

Dr. Armstrong started her nursing career in 1994. She received her BSN in 2009, her MSN in 2013—and decided to continue her education. “I knew I didn’t want to do a PhD. I wanted something more in line with evidence-based training,” she says. “That’s the direction healthcare was moving in. I found Chatham online, and decided to apply.”

Dr. Armstrong enrolled in Chatham’s DNP program in January 2014 and graduated in December of that same year, studying full time and working full time.

“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “The first semester was a little strenuous, because I was getting used to studying and working full time, but I liked the way it was structured. It took you through the material in steps, so you weren’t trying to do everything at the last minute.” She has referred five people to the program.

The level of support from the faculty at Chatham really stuck out,” says Dr. Armstrong. “My instructors even initiated contact with me, just to make sure I was on the right track.”

Post-DNP, Dr. Armstrong was teaching nursing at a community college in San Antonia when she was approached to write a proposal for a nursing program at the University of Texas. While writing it, she accepted a position with the Dallas Nursing Institute, where she taught and served as the director of the RN to BSN program. Today, she is the Dean of Nursing at the Fortis College Nursing Program.

 

She has received the National Institute of Staff & Organizational Development (NISOD) for Excellence Award in Teaching. She is also the recipient of the Friends of Texas Award 2013 from Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for her endless community service dedication and contributions.

In August, Dr. Armstrong spoke about communicating and interacting with people with dementia at the Geriatric Symposium in Austin, TX. “Nurses tend to be in a hurry a lot of the time—we’re very busy—but patients with dementia really need to take time to think about what we’re telling them or asking them. The way we present information really makes a difference,” she says.

In the future, she plans to start a free mobile clinic that will provide wellness checks to college students across Texas. “A lot of conditions like diabetes can be managed, but college students don’t always take care of themselves the way they should,” she says. “With some education and training, we can get them to pay more attention to their blood sugar and blood pressure.”

One of the things I love about having my DNP is that I get to see what’s out there in a way that I couldn’t with just my MSN, because I can teach in a graduate program. A DNP is also required for management positions. I consider myself a leader, very much so. Being able to do that, oh yes, that’s a plus.”

Chatham’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is a 27-credit program offering meaningful, sequential courses that provide practical knowledge for the advanced practice RN. It’s one of the shortest-to-degree clinical doctorates in the market. 

Five Questions with Julie Slade

Name: Julie Slade
Title: RN-BSN Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Nursing
Joined Chatham: July 2010
Born & Raised: Born in Honolulu, Hawaii (my dad was in the military), I moved back to Pittsburgh, PA on my first birthday and have been here ever since
Interests: Nursing education, hospice/end-of-life nursing, spending time with my family and puppy, traveling

1.  How did you develop an interest in the field in which you teach?

When I was four, I told my mother that I wanted to be a nurse. To this day I don’t know where the idea came from, because neither I nor anyone in my family had been sick or in need of medical care. When I graduated from high school, I went straight into a 4-year program and earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. I worked in a few different intensive care units in local hospitals and eventually returned to school to earn my Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on nursing education and my Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. Even after earning my DNP degree I wasn’t sure where I was going to take my career. I applied for a job at Chatham as a Clinical (Practice Experience) Coordinator and fell in love with nursing education. Nowhere in my life plans or on my career path did it ever occur to me that I wanted to teach nursing. Somehow I always knew that I wanted to be a nurse.

2. What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

One summer break in high school I worked a temporary job doing filing, mailing, and a small amount of data entry. Every day, I reported to a woman who gave me my assignments. On several occasions, I would do them, and when I returned for more she would say “Why are you working so fast? Take your time. You’ll make the rest of us look bad.” I remember feeling very uneasy at this. Why do a job when I’m not going to do it to the best of my ability? Why waste time doing purposefully slow work? I learned that any job worth doing was worth doing well, and that anything less than my best effort was not good enough for me.

3. What is your favorite thing about working with Chatham students?

I mostly work with RN-BSN students—working adults who have completed an Associate or Diploma program and are now working towards a Bachelor degree in nursing. My students, by far, are my favorite part of my job. They are bright, motivated individuals who are making a difference in the lives of their patients but they don’t always realize how far they can go as individuals or how far they can take the profession. During the program, I see students grow and develop in ways that they didn’t even know they could and, by the end of the program, many realize they are the leaders I knew they could be. Often students reach out to me after graduation and ask for letters of recommendation because they are going on to even higher levels of education. Or students will reach out and tell me about new positions they are taking or endeavors they are conquering. I couldn’t be more proud!

4. What is your passion?

That’s a really hard question, especially because I don’t have just one passion. In nursing, I’m passionate about nursing education and hospice/end-of-life nursing. As a nurse educator I don’t currently work clinically at bedside. I feel that my job right now is to nurse nurses. Through my students, I touch a myriad of patients and by helping nurses be the best nurses they can be, I am improving the care patients receive.

Many people are afraid of death, understandably so, but I see death as a special time in life that none of us can avoid. I don’t believe anything will ever eliminate a person’s fear of death but, with proper care, the dying process can be greatly improved. Our country has a far way to go in making this a universal idea. I spend time learning about improvements in end-of-life care and sharing the knowledge I have in an effort to benefit patients and families facing end-of-life situations.

Outside of nursing I also have many passions; my most intense is probably for my family. I believe everyone should be the best version of himself or herself and I try to always give my all to those I love and care about.

5. What one individual had the greatest impact on you and how?

I don’t know that I could identify one individual that had the greatest impact on me. My father taught me the value of hard work and providing for your family. My mother taught me to be a strong woman and that anything is possible. My colleagues teach me how to continuously improve my teaching skills. My students are a constant source of inspiration. I truly can’t identify one individual as the most influential in my life.

Julie Slade is program coordinator and an assistant professor in Chatham’s Master of Science in Nursing Program. You may find her changing a tire on the weekends when she serves as her husband’s dirt track racing pit crew.

disaster relief in nepal

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Recorder.

It  can be hard to access healthcare in Nepal, says Chatham nursing student, Devin Corboy ‘18. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s mostly rural, so access is limited by time and terrain. And if it’s not free or almost free, clients just don’t have the resources to pay.” Devin also points to a shortage of providers (“Doctors aren’t well paid—it’s not as prestigious there as it is here. They work around the clock and it’s often necessary for them to hold several positions”) and—literally—energy (“With rolling blackouts, they spend long periods of time without electricity—often 12-14 hours per day.”)

That’s in the best of times.

But on April 25, 2015, Devin woke to news of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Approximately 9,000 people were killed and more than 21,000 injured.  Devin and his wife had spent time there the previous fall, made friends, and fallen in love with the region. Devin—a student in Chatham’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC—knew that he had to help. Just over two weeks later, a second earthquake killed at least 153 people and injured more than 3,200.  That was the day Devin arrived in Nepal.

“In third-world trauma environments, scope of practice is directly proportional to your knowledge and level of comfort.”

His Nepali friends had told him the only way to reliably bring in supplies was to carry them in himself, so he showed up with over 100 pounds of medical supplies. “The airstrip was lined with cargo containers with food and other resources from countries who wanted to help,” he recalls. “But the government couldn’t release the supplies because of their regulation requirements. They had to register it. So much food sent over there never made it to anyone because it went bad.”

“When I arrived, my friend drove me to a community health clinic, where I saw people lined up out the door. Suturing and setting broken bones and dislocated limbs aren’t typical nursing practices in the US, but in third-world trauma environments, your scope of practice is directly proportional to your knowledge and level of comfort,” Devin says. “We worked with the highest degree of sterility possible using the supplies I carried from the US. We worked in the street, day and night, through heat and rain, under temporary tarps and in tents because damage to the hospital made it unsafe. Patients arrived on overcrowded buses. Three people per seat wasn’t infrequent, and you’d see men, women, and children hanging off the roofs.” It wasn’t uncommon for patients to arrive in need of critical treatment due to accidents caused by this method of travel that was both unsafe and unavoidable.

tents

After a couple of weeks, Devin and a guide loaded up five yaks with life-saving provisions and set forth to Thame, a village in the Everest mountain region that had been all but wiped out. They made what was normally a five-day trek to the village in two days, hiking 12-hour days carrying 50-60 pounds of supplies.

loading up yaks

When they arrived, they saw that one building was left standing, the medical clinic was gone, and people were living openly on the streets. “It was the monsoon season, cold and rainy,” says Devin. “No one had tents. We spent much of our time passing out temporary shelters and tarps.”

Nepal, Take 2

Devin returned home after just over three weeks, but in November, he and his wife returned to contribute through the All Hands disaster response effort. They were there for almost two months. “I had to delay my entry into the BSN program,” said Devin, “but Chatham said no problem, we’ll contact all your instructors, and we’ll figure it out.”

Much of the work in Devin’s second trip focused on demolition and rebuilding efforts, but it wasn’t long before his medical skills were called into action. The Project Director created the position of First Aid and Medical Curriculum Coordinator for him, and among his initiatives was to bring in anti-venom medicine. In the eight months since the earthquake, snakes—most of which were poisonous—had made their homes in all the debris. “There was a high probability that someone would get bitten and die,” Devin said. He coordinated with project partners in the UK to get the anti-venom. “It took about two and a half weeks for it to get here,” he says. “Meanwhile, we were seeing about six baby snakes each day, and thinking ‘oh boy, where’s Mama?’”

Eventually, Devin wants to open a community health clinic in West Africa. He envisions a solar-powered clinic focused on sustainable community health and education that can also provide emergency medical capabilities. He views his experiences in Nepal as simultaneously good training and a valuable expansion of perspective.

“I saw how spoiled we are,” he says. “I was able to bring over pre-sterilized gauze pads and Nepali healthcare providers couldn’t believe how easy they were to use. The way they’d do it is to cut a piece of gauze, heat it to a temperature that kills bacteria, maybe rest it on dirty pants to fold it, tape it to the wound, if they even had tape. In the U.S., we have all these supplies that don’t even exist in Nepal, and we toss them into the garbage when they fall on the floor or the package doesn’t look right. We treated at least 300 people with supplies equivalent to two days worth of what we throw away here. And the mentality of receiving healthcare here is so different,” Devin continues. “They were so appreciative of every single thing we were able to do. In their eyes, it’s not our duty, and it’s not their right.”

Eye care in the Pediatric emergency room