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Meet Gayle, My Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Luminary

Meet Gayle, My Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Luminary
Gayle, PMH Nurse Luminary

September 2023, by Kris Lambert, PhD, RN

First, a bit of background

About a year ago, I joined in a conversation on the APNA All-Purpose Discussion Forum focused on how it is the infusion of new psychiatric-mental health nurses entering practice coupled with the knowledge and skills of experienced psychiatric-mental health nurses that creates a safe, informed place for patients to heal. This led to a new discussion focused on the importance of recognizing, honoring, and supporting those nurses that have come into our lives and impacted our careers in positive, growth-producing ways. The term “psychiatric-mental health nurse luminary” was advanced as a way to refer to these unsung heroes of psychiatric-mental health nursing.

As a part of the APNA Board of Directors’ invitation for us to share our PMH nurse luminaries, here is my story about a nurse luminary who embodied the spirit of psychiatric-mental health nursing and inspired me to be more authentic and genuine in my own professional practice.

My Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Luminary

I would like to introduce you to Gayle: a psychiatric-mental health nurse for over 45 years who motivated and encouraged several generations of psychiatric-mental health nurses to see the person first and provide care that is skilled, compassionate, and evidence based.

Wisconsin born, and California connected, Gayle was a wife, a mother to two children, a nana to a very special young man, a woman of the 60’s and most importantly a psychiatric-mental health nurse. She was a psychiatric-mental health nurse who remembered what it was like to work in a stark, state run facility that “housed” people with mental illness on locked wards with minimal access to therapeutic activities. She started her career at a time when Thorazine came in quart size glass bottles with pumps primed to dispense some of the earliest psychotropic drugs available. Though her surroundings were bleak, she did not let the institutional presentation of the environment deter her vision of what it meant to be a psychiatric-mental health nurse.

Her infectious laugh could be heard throughout the facility as she took the time to chat and laugh with her patients, develop and facilitate groups that were previously non-existent, and ensure that her night shift staff had the tools they needed to help patients unwilling or unable to sleep.

I first met Gayle in her role as house supervisor at the largest free standing behavioral health facility in California. She was preparing to transition to another position, and I was orienting to the house supervisor role. I was not new to psychiatric-mental health nursing and had spent the previous 15 years in both acute and outpatient mental health settings. We spent the evening rounding on seven inpatient units across the campus; serving holds, checking in with the nurses, assessing and advising patients, filling new medication orders, and plunging toilets on one of the upstairs units as the staff tried to prevent the water from moving into the hallways. At the end of this chaotic shift, this is what she shared with me:

If a person comes into the hospital seeking help but unsure if they are ready for admission, go to the kitchen, make them a sandwich, and suggest they take a moment to eat and rest before they make a final decision.

Give your full attention to the person standing in front of you. Your listening ear and presence is what they need.

If the building is still standing at the end of your shift and everyone is alive and breathing, you have done your job. Go home, get some sleep, and remember that tomorrow is another day.

Gayle exemplified the title: “nurse luminary.” She lived and breathed the principles of recovery as she offered hope, encouraged empowerment, promoted self-responsibility, forged meaningful connections, and believed everyone has the capacity to have a meaningful life. She was a steward of our profession at a time when psychiatric-mental health nursing was still blemished by unfounded stigmas. On the contrary, she was proud to be a psychiatric-mental health nurse and often said it was the best kept secret in nursing. As a luminary, she expected her staff to care for their patients using best practices and provided the tools and education they needed to consistently provide patient-centered care. She expressed gratitude to all team members from housekeeping, maintenance, and dietary personnel to the nurses, mental health associates, therapists, social workers, and physicians for their contribution to the care of the patients. She thanked the patients for choosing to work on their health and healing and for the support they provided to their fellow patients.

She also showed us what it looked like to love what you do, day in and day out. Her own life was not easy. She supported a family member living with mental illness and engaged in her own battle with cancer. I realize that love is not a word often associated with “professional practice” and yet, it is the word that comes to mind when I think of Gayle and her work as a psychiatric-mental health nurse. Gayle referred to her work as a labor of love and felt it was an honor to care for people in crisis.

A few years ago, the hospital decided to refurbish Gayle’s last professional home: the intensive care unit. During the demolition, before the walls came down, staff members gathered with markers in hand, to write love letters to Gayle in gratitude for the way she practiced nursing and for the way she made those in her orbit feel; valued, heard, important and worthy. That wall is now a part of the foundation of the new unit in gratitude for the care she and her team provided community members in the past and for care they will provide in the future.

>>> Inspired to share about your PMH Nurse Luminary? Here’s where to start.