By Rita Baron-Faust, MPH, CHES
There I was sitting at my desk thinking: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
Like many people I know facing midlife, I was trying to re-invent myself mid-career. For me, the change of course came after more than 25 years as a medical journalist. After earning a masters’ degree in public health and getting certification as a health educator, I had been able to indulge my passions for medicine and writing. But true involvement in healthcare was lacking. I couldn't work as a health educator in a clinical setting in New York and many other states without also being a nurse.
From the time I was a little girl, I had dreamed of being the fictional “Cherry Ames, RN” so I wondered whether it was too late to become Cherry Ames now. The 27-book series about the career nurse in the days when women had jobs, not careers, was written by Helen Wells and later by Julie Tatham. The first book was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1943. That's when Cherry, appealingly perky with shining black hair and rosy cheeks, began her three-year pursuit of an RN and a nurses’ cap at the Spencer Hospital School of Nursing.
I discovered Cherry when I was around seven years old in the late 1950’s and became hooked. Five books were set during World War II: Student Nurse, Senior Nurse (where she helped solve a mystery surrounding the theft of penicillin, then a revolutionary new drug), Army Nurse (Cherry’s entire graduating class joined the Army Nurse Corps),Chief Nurse (during which she managed to dodge Japanese bombs), and Flight Nurse (she flew with wounded soldiers from war-torn England, often surrounded by enemy aircraft). After stints as a Veterans’ Private Duty Nurse, and Visiting Nurse, Cherry began a series of more mundane nursing gigs across the country (Camp Nurse), where she kept on solving mysteries. She never married, despite proposals from the tawny-haired, golden-eyed Dr. “Lex” Upham. There was something in her single-minded dedication to help people that touched me deeply. I wanted to make a difference, too. Yet I never pursued that nursing degree because I had always struggled with math and foolishly believed well-meaning “guidance counselors” who said I lacked the “aptitude” for nursing.
However, years later when I was hanging around hospitals to interview experts for my medical articles, I always found myself wishing I had opted for the “road not taken.” Then came that rainy morning in 2010, when the desire to go down that road became overwhelming. I started researching nursing programs.
I also re-read my favorite Cherry Ames books to see if I could if they still inspired me. I relived Cherry’s awe at observing her first surgery and chuckled over her mishaps and tendency to lateness (they dubbed her “the late Miss Ames”). But when I read that her dream was “helping people on a grand scale in the most important way there is,” to make a difference in their health, I realized my own goal was similar. Yet today, prevention is the path to saving not only lives but also health care dollars. Maybe I could fulfill my childhood dream past midlife without actually becoming a nurse. Nursing scholarships are scarce for older career-changers. In lieu of that, I discovered some satisfying options: biometric screening and corporate wellness.
I contacted several corporate wellness companies and took part in their trainings. I found myself learning to do fingersticks to measure cholesterol and blood glucose, take blood pressure with manual and automatic devices, do fitness testing, and use my medical knowledge to counsel patients with an eye toward prevention.
At first, mastering the finger-stick technique was nerve-wracking and manual blood pressure looked easier than it was. On the other hand, learning to use the electronic devices was fun! Imagine, getting your body mass index and percentage of fat just by holding an electronic gizmo in front of you! And I faithfully watched company training films.
Before I knew it, I was clad in a crisp white lab coat doing testing and counseling patients on their test results. I kept perfecting my techniques with each clinic and making more and more use of my health education skills and accumulated medical knowledge.
Best of all, I made an important discovery: I truly didn't need Cherry’s white nursing cap to make a difference in people’s lives. What I do at these clinics is give people the tools to change behaviors with the goal of preventing heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and kidney disease – an important job in these days of soaring medical costs. I also deliver "lunch ‘n learn" presentations on stress reduction, smoking cessation, cancer, and weight control. The audiences are full of questions. The satisfaction I get from helping people understand their health problems and avoid getting more of them is my reward for finding my own way to fulfill my childhood dream.
As a result, I’ve decided to go a step further and become a Certified Medical Assistant in order to gain even more clinical skills. This is a perfect career for someone at my stage in life. I'll be able to find positions any place my husband and I go after he retires. I can do screening clinics and health talks no matter where we settle. I could even work for a doctor or nurse practitioner.
I'm really grateful to have been able to make this change and “pivot” my career so that it now brings me happiness and fulfillment each and every day. For a very long time, my childhood dream had been put away like an outgrown toy. How wonderful that I dusted off that dream and made it come true in a way that not only makes me healthier in mind and spirit but also improves the well-being of so many others.
Rita Baron-Faust holds a Master's Degree in Urban Public Health/Community Health Education from Hunter College and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES). She is the recipient of more than two dozen awards for medical journalism and consumer health writing, and an author or co-author of six books on women’s health, most recently The Autoimmune Connection: Essential Information for Women on Diagnosis, Treatment, and Getting on with Your Life. Please visit http://www.ritabaronfaust.com/