Kathleen Buckwalter, PhD, RN, FAAN
APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year

With a rocky start and many unexpected turns, Kathleen “Kitty” Buckwalter’s career has been anything but mundane. From a scuba diving nurse in San Diego, to a violin-playing APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year, her story hinges not only upon lucky encounters and flukes but also upon her ability to recognize what she wanted when she saw it, and the flexibility and drive to go after it.

After experiencing some disenchantment with rigid nursing curricula in her early undergraduate career, Kitty finally found her niche during her senior year at the University of Iowa: psychiatric and public health nursing courses plus an independent study on the relatively new topic of dementia. This combination, coupled with “the expertise and passion of my psych nursing teacher and a wonderful role model, Dr. Karlene Kerfoot,” served as the winning combination that turned Buckwalter on to psychiatric mental health nursing. She had found what she wanted to do-- “it was like I had found a lifeline within nursing.”

Post-graduation, Buckwalter served as a Navy Nurse for three years during the Vietnam War. Assigned to be charge nurse in a new drug detox unit at the Naval Hospital in San Diego, she worked nights so that she could scuba dive by day. After completing her three year tour of duty, it was back to Iowa to pursue a masters in psychiatric mental health nursing with the ultimate goal of becoming a family nurse therapist. An introduction to an early investigation of pain interventions while working as a research assistant however, changed the course of her career. She “got hooked on research.” “Thus my intended three semester clinical masters became 2 ½ years as I took preparatory courses for getting my PhD.” Her dissertation focused on a discharge planning intervention for depressed adults.

Next stop: geropsych nursing. “I got into geropsych nursing by a lucky fluke,” she explains. “I was up for promotion and tenure and my Dean said I needed a focus. About two weeks later came information on newly developed academic K awards at the Mental Disorders of the Aging Branch at NIMH, open to psychiatrists and masters-prepared psychiatric nurses.” She applied “with great ignorance and enthusiasm” and in turn became one of four nurses funded. “I could not have designed a better specialty or career plan even if I had done so mindfully,” she notes, “I still love the area!”

Today Dr. Buckwalter’s love for her profession generates an endless number of championing activities, publications, presentations, editorials, and more. She is currently a faculty member of the University of Iowa Nursing School. When asked which of her projects she feels is most indicative of what she has tried to accomplish throughout her career, she responds “perhaps the Mental Health of the Elderly project.” With funding from NIMH and the Administration on aging, the project sought to bring mental health services, via an interdisciplinary team, to homebound elderly persons living in rural areas and in need of community services and psychosocial support and treatment. “This project was an ideal combination of my love of gero, public health, and psych nursing. It made a huge difference in people’s lives and it was a fantastic combination of good clinical care and research to document the important outcomes of PMH and gero nursing with vulnerable populations who would have otherwise gone undetected,” she says.

Her colleagues describe her over and over as a wonderful mentor. She clearly takes joy in seeing her students and fellows grow both professionally and personally as she guides them with her passion and expertise. “I derive great satisfaction from their accomplishments as well as liking them as people,” she says, “I am very blessed that former mentees are now my colleagues and friends.” And they feel blessed in return—several former mentees nominated her for this award, unbeknownst to her. It was a surprise to hear from Executive Director Nick Croce that she had been selected as the APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year. “I was at first very shocked, but very honored,” she says.

How does she stay grounded with so much going on? What does she do when she is not working on her current research or mentoring students? She plays the violin “poorly but music is a great mental health break,” reads People magazine, and works crosswords and soduko puzzles. She loves to travel, eat, drink good wine, and most of all spend time with her three grandchildren. If she is as fantastic a grandmother as she is a PMH nurse (and odds are she approaches grandmothering with the same zeal and passion), those three grandchildren are very lucky!

 

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