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2021 APNA Award for Excellence in Practice – APRN

Donna A. Gaffney, MA, DNSc, APN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN

Dr. Donna Gaffney has dedicated her practice to the challenging work of helping people through life-altering grief and trauma.

Beginning in 1986 with the Challenger explosion, Donna shares, “January 28,1986 was a tragic day in history. Sitting on the floor with pages of my dissertation strewn around me, I looked up at the TV screen to see the Challenger explode before my eyes.

Unlike televised tragedies today, no one was talking about how the deaths of six astronauts and a teacher could affect children, especially students who witnessed the disaster on their classroom TVs. It was the first time I felt an urgent need to reach out and take action following a crisis.

I took a risk and called NBC and told them I could offer some guidance for children confronting loss. The next morning, I appeared on the Today Show.”

This event catapulted her career forward. Following the Today Show segment, a literary agent contacted Donna, noting the great need for this type of mental health guidance for parents. As a result, Donna wrote her first book, The Seasons of Grief: Helping Children Grow Through Loss, to fill that void.

During the following three decades, Donna continued to step forward, making significant contributions to families, schools and healthcare professionals in the aftermath the Pan Am 103 crash, the first Gulf war, the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Haitian earthquake and Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

In her psychotherapy practice, Donna listens to parents and caregivers as they navigate the turbulent waters of bereavement. “Death turns a family’s world into an alien landscape,” she says. “Everyone is grieving, emotional resources are sparse, patience is thin, but lunches still have to be made, homework done and bedtime routines adhered to. The truth is — parents have more knowledge and skills than they realize, even in the midst of a profound family crisis. I believe that parents can be the best guides for their children. I call them trailblazers.”

Following the September 11th attacks, Donna again stepped forward to serve on the Families of September 11 Advisory Board, facilitating one of the only online support groups for family members affected by the attacks.

Donna contributed to the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program at Arizona State University – a 10-session group/online program for caregivers of bereaved children and has written articles and guides on the use of film and literature for children and teens healing after a loss.

While Donna has long addressed trauma and loss in the lives of children, families and communities, she has also provided extensive support, psychotherapy, and education for nursing students, registered nurses, and mental health professionals. Focusing on how nurses can meet the needs of survivors of sexual violence, she designed and implemented the first educational programs for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners in New York and New Jersey.

Over the past 18 months, Donna has focused on the acute impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on nurses in nearly every practice setting. “Since March 2020 my most important work has been with nurses who are in the ‘trenches’ of the pandemic,” she shares. “I’ve listened to them, collected their stories and tried to identify their challenges and needs. I feel a sense of urgency unlike any other time in my professional life. I had never witnessed anything like this before.”

In response to this need, Donna designed a webinar series called Healing Ourselves, While Healing Others: Nursing During the Coronavirus Pandemic, to provide a much-needed deep dive into content on well-being and stress management strategies. Donna is now working with the Johns Hopkins University Press to develop the content into a book for nurses.

“When we bear witness to the trauma and pain of patients as well as the overwhelming changes in clinical settings, it can take a long-lasting toll on nurses, no matter how well prepared we are,” Donna says. “Many nurses had been dutifully going to work and just thinking they had to endure it. I realized that the best way to ensure they were equipped for the future, no matter what health crisis struck our communities or our country, was to develop a resource to guide and protect them from the challenges of their work”.

Donna believes that “psychiatric nurses can light the darkness that cloaks the public’s awareness of grief, especially loss during childhood.” She encourages her fellow PMH nurses to, “look beyond the borders of our profession, share your own stories and write, write, write—op-eds, letters to the editor, essays, respond to science articles. Find the mentors to inspire you, become a mentor yourself. Above all, listen, and ask ‘how can I take what I have heard and learned to develop new strategies, programs and resources for those who have such great needs?’”