Five years ago, Kathryn Gerber, BSN, RN was a junior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, volunteering with the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition.
“Before this experience, I knew what dementia was, but I wasn’t aware of the wider community aspects,” Gerber said in 2015. “For example, if a person with dementia goes into a business, it’s important not to overwhelm them with choices. It’s all about how you interact with them.”
Since graduating, Gerber has worked with older patients in hospital, clinic, and long-term care settings. She says her early involvement with dementia-friendly communities still shapes her nursing practice.
“It increased my passion for working with the elderly and helped me see the importance of community supports,” says Gerber. “It helped me be present and not work strictly in a medical way,” when she was at a long-term care and rehabilitation facility.
Gerber is now a doctoral student at the University of Miami in Florida. She’s focusing her research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), based on her nursing practice.
“When I worked in rehab, I would see patients who had sustained a TBI experiencing very different outcomes,” she says. “I also worked with a lot of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, so I want to know more about the relationship between TBI and future neurodegenerative disease.”
Gerber’s career plans include both research and practice. She encourages undergraduate students to pursue varied experiences, too.
“The best nurse practitioners and physicians I’ve worked with are those who are open to new experiences,” she says. “It’s important to maintain an attitude of openness and learning.”
Gerber, who has precepted nursing students, says, “If you’re in a geriatric clinical and it’s not your thing, you can still learn skills and translate them into another setting. When I was in nursing school, I did an ob/gyn clinical. Even though it’s not what I ended up doing, I still had really interesting learning experiences.”
She knows some nursing students have negative perceptions of long-term care, but thinks many don’t know enough about the setting.
“All my best nursing memories are from working there,” says Gerber. “The care is a lot more holistic. I actually got to know the patients I was taking care of. I’d get to know family members, too. That’s why I wanted to go into nursing—to have a personal connection with the work I was doing.”
Knowing her patients allowed Gerber to tailor her care to their needs.
“I had one patient with very high anxiety. When I had some down time during my shift, I’d just go in her room, hold her hand and talk with her. It actually helped a lot,” says Gerber. “Shifts are hectic, but even a few minutes can make a big difference. The patients can tell when the nurse is really paying attention to them. When someone is invested in them and cares. When nurses are more person-centered, it facilitates better outcomes.”
Personalizing care is one of many skills Gerber developed while working in long-term care.
“I was doing care for complex wounds, providing care to orthopedic patients, managing medications. I grew more as a nurse there. I had more patients to take care of, so I had to learn how to prioritize. I learned my pharmacology really well, too. Overall, the care was more complex, as many patients have multiple chronic, medically challenging illnesses. It’s challenging, but also very rewarding.”
Recently, Gerber helped move an interprofessional health care simulation online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Teaching virtually has been challenging for people,” she says. “We had to do so much planning around how to use Zoom correctly to facilitate the simulation. There were so many logistics!”
“Some students might be down that they’re missing out on experiences because of the pandemic,” Gerber acknowledges. “But you’re also in a unique position to be a catalyst for change. You can use this to motivate yourself as a health professional.”
“You lived through a pandemic, during your nursing studies. Use that to inform your future work.”