Notes from a CLPP Alum: From Community Activist to Registered Nurse

Notes from a CLPP Alum: From Community Activist to Registered Nurse

by Ryn Gluckman, RN, BSN

I am sitting at the triage window at my local Emergency Department, stethoscope around my neck, fighting back a creeping and familiar panic that is threatening to clamp around my throat. It is 5 p.m., six hours into my shift, and as the local doctors’ offices close the waiting room here is starting to fill up and the line to sign in as a patient reaches out the door.

I am the triage nurse, responsible for assessing each person who requests an exam and making a seemingly simple decision: sick or not sick. Today, everyone who signs in is sick. Three people with chest pain, an asthma exacerbation, a three-year-old with a deep laceration, a college student who took one too many tabs of LSD and is convinced that he is Moses. A young woman who has been sexually assaulted, a baby with a temperature of 104. Three skiing accidents and an elderly woman who took a double dose of insulin by mistake. The ambulance alert is ringing off the hook. Cardiac monitors are beeping, the sound of weeping can be heard from several rooms, and there is screaming down the hall as a doctor tries to reduce a shoulder dislocation.

Nine years ago I had a quieter job as an organizer and project manager for the Civil Liberties and Public Policy and Population and Development programs at Hampshire College. I sat at a desk, behind a computer, and with a team of brilliant and energetic students and activists tried to address the cultural and policy issues that so deeply impede our autonomy over our bodies and spirits. Eleven years ago I was on the track to law school, finishing up a degree at Hampshire, and looking forward to using the legal system as a tool for justice for queer people and youth. I was in love with the theory, the intellectual gymnastics, and the feeling of empowerment as a handful of committed young people brought 1,000 activists together to lay blueprints for social justice.

Gazing out into this packed hospital waiting room, my work as a registered nurse today seems a far cry from the law and policy work I did at Hampshire, and even the advocacy work we all did at CLPP and PopDev. Surely if you had told me nine years ago that this is what I would be doing today, I would have laughed in disbelief. But in retrospect I see that the core values and skills I bring to my nursing practice are deeply rooted in my experience as an activist and organizer.

At Hampshire I was trained to think broadly and critically about the world around me. This way of thinking is essential to competent and compassionate nursing care. The core question of “sick or not sick” is the bare bones of my assessment, the frame on which I hang the soul of my nursing practice. When my patient sits before me, I must attempt to see the life that is larger than the specific problem they have in that moment. When I am treating patients I am always aware that I am not only treating their bodies, but also their spirits, their families and their communities, and all in the broader context of a national and international health care landscape.

While the public debate rages over health care reform (a debate, I might add, in which nurses’ voices are largely absent) I am in the position of seeing exactly how lack of insurance, lack of access, the nursing shortage, and inattention to the needs of women and children play out in the lives of those I care for. My college education at Hampshire taught me that the antidote to spiritual isolation and rigid judgment is a global perspective. Cultivating this perspective has allowed me to develop a deeper understanding for the struggles my patients and my nursing colleagues face, not to mention more accurate assessments of the health needs of my community.

But by far the most influential experience I had was working at CLPP and PopDev as an organizer, researcher, and writer. It was in those years that I was taught to listen to other people’s stories, although I’m not sure I understood the value of this lesson at the time. The stories I heard at the annual reproductive rights conference, particularly the abortion speak out; the reflections of other young people like myself grappling with social inequity in our personal and political lives; and the experiences of women living and working internationally were all exercises in really listening to what people say and what they do not say about their lives.

Having worked as a nurse for the last three years, I see now that the stories I heard at Hampshire and the stories I hear from my patients every day are not that different. I take care of everybody: Republicans, young people, farmers, the elderly, Cambodians, Puerto Ricans, the wealthy, the drug-addicted and sober, Democrats, immigrants, business people. All with distinctive identities and unique histories. So while the initial treatment decision may very well pivot on “sick or not sick,” the deeper question is “suffering or not suffering?”

When I listen closely I can fully and completely see the landscape of my patient’s suffering, regardless of whether it is a life or limb emergency. I am more able to respond compassionately and to see myself as being connected to that person, an ally in the midst of their troubles, a fellow human negotiating a difficult life. If I move past political and lifestyle difference, past identity politics, past education and economics, if I really employ the ability to listen that was cultivated at Hampshire, one thing becomes very, very clear. We all have the same fundamental yearning: a healthy birth, a rich life, a kind and gentle death. To see that there is a connection between all of us in this basic wish, and to attend to this connection – this principle is at the very heart of my nursing practice and, in fact, my practice as a member of this global community.

As the next patient sits down in front of me, I consider that maybe it is not such a huge leap from activist/advocate to nurse. Getting together with another CLPP alum recently who is active in health care reform, I realized that the common ground I share with so many Hampshire alums and CLPP activists is that we are all tuned to human suffering and all ready to get our hands dirty to do something about it. The professions we arrive at in the end are merely tools in our toolbox, the vessels into which we pour our vision, effort and hope.

Ryn is a writer, a registered nurse, and a Hampshire and CLPP/PopDev alum. She earned her Bachelor’s in Nursing at the University of Massachusetts and now provides emergency nursing care at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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