One Teacher Who Inspired a Career and a Commitment

  1. an article from the New York State Nurses Association
    REPORT: March 2003[/I]

    One Teacher Who Inspired a Career and a Commitment
    by Genie Abrams

    In nursing education, the art is not only in the teaching of tasks, but also in the conveyance of compassion and professional commitment.

    Pat Curry-Wilson, president of the New York State Nurses Association's District 5 (Broome and Tioga counties), remembers fondly--and daily--Letha West-Catlett. In the second year of the three-year diploma program at Binghamton State Hospital School of Nursing, Curry-Wilson and her classmates did clinicals at Morrisania City Hospital in the Bronx, where West-Catlett was director of med/surg nursing education. Today, more than 40 years later, Curry-Wilson says she will never forget her first impression of her teacher.

    "She was a tiny African-American woman, five feet tall, but with enormous physical strength. She wore a starched, crisp, white uniform. Not a hair was out of place. And high atop that hair was her white nurse's cap. It looked like a white bird that might fly away with her."

    West-Catlett's knowledge was as impressive as her appearance--or more so.

    "She seemed to have retained everything she'd ever learned," Curry-Wilson said. "But it wasn't her knowledge that I remember most. It was how she emphasized the importance of joining your professional nursing organization. As a proud NYSNA member, she knew the importance of being aware of the practice and regulatory issues that affect us all. And she constantly reminded us to join NYSNA, both as a way of keeping up with those issues, and as a basic part of nursing professionalism."

    West-Catlett also stressed the value of compassion in nursing.

    "One day we students were all gathered near an empty bed on a unit, waiting for her. As she came into the room, she suddenly staggered and seemed to lose her balance. She started flailing her arms in an awkward way, and she fell onto the bed. We didn't know what to do. Then suddenly we realized: she was acting out a grand mal seizure, which we were just learning about.

    "The only tool we had just then was a padded tongue blade. We restrained her tongue with the blade to maintain an open airway, and then just let the 'seizure' pass." That incident was typical, Curry-Wilson said, of the determination and creativity her teacher used, in making nursing "real" to her students. "We got to practice a technique, but more importantly, we learned exactly how it feels to those who are nearby when one occurs. There is no better definition of 'compassion', empathy--to feel along with someone."

    West-Catlett also wanted all her students to reach beyond nursing's basic level. She constantly urged her students to obtain more formal education, and Curry-Wilson is one of those who responded. She earned her bachelor's degree in health science and her master's in health services administration. Along the way, she also became a nurse practitioner.

    Today she is a legal nurse consultant, in independent practice in Binghamton. Her career has involved nursing in many settings and at various levels. Through it all, Curry-Wilson and West-Catlett remained fast friends.

    "Letha was always very active in her church, as well as in her professional organizations," Curry-Wilson said. "A few years ago, when she was almost 90, I called her at Christmas. She was sad, because the women in her church were going to South Africa to support Nelson Mandela, and they'd told her she couldn't go because she was too old.

    "I said, 'Letha, you've never taken 'no' for an answer! You're still in good health; you tell those ladies you're going to go, no matter what they say!'"

    "That was what she always told her students: go. Go find out the answers; go and join your nursing organization; go for more education; go, go, go.

    "Well, a few months later, I got a postcard from Letha, from South Africa. It just said, 'It is done. God bless you!'"

    Later that year, West-Catlett died after a brief illness. Curry-Wilson says she is grateful that she could encourage and inspire West-Catlett the same way her old teacher had encouraged and inspired her, many years before.

    "I am the person I am, the NYSNA activist that I am, and the nurse that I am, because of her!" Curry-Wilson said.

    Teachers often inspire nursing students to "see the big picture" in health care today, as well as to improve their own practice professionalism, by joining their professional associations. This impact is being recognized by NYSNA with the institution of a new award that will be presented at the annual Graduating Nursing Student Receptions, April 15-16 at NYSNA headquarters in Latham.

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  3. by   CountrifiedRN
    Great story! Thanks for sharing!
  4. by   AmyLiz
    How wonderful! Thanks for posting!