Following Illness and Tragedy, Three Nurses Found a Calling in Care
by Rebecca Proch
Fran Slenbaker’s patient voiced an abandoned dream. “She said, ‘I always wanted to be a nurse, and my husband thought I should, but I’m too old,’” recalls Fran, chuckling at the memory. “I told her, Oh, let’s talk too old!”
Slenbaker, a 46-year-old mother of three, has been a nurse for only two years herself. It was a promise to her brother during his struggle with leukemia that allowed her to put aside her worry about being too old to get a degree, and to begin the work she’d always felt drawn to do.
Like many other Hopkins nurses, Slenbaker could describe her journey to nursing with the Latin motto “Dulcius ex asperis” or “Through difficulty, sweetness.” Following are the stories of three nurses—Fran Slenbaker, Nicole Mills, and Susan Clark—who discovered their calling to nursing during some of the hardest times of their lives.
“They Helped Me Believe”
Nicole Mills, RN, was a freshman in college and considering medical school when she received a diagnosis of esthesioneuroblastoma. Doctors warned her that removing the tumor might require removing large sections of her face. Ultimately her surgery was less drastic but still required months of intense treatment.
Although she received excellent care from her doctors, Mills spent much more time with her nurses. One of them, she recalls, remembered Mills’s love of ice cream and bought her some on her lunch break. “My nurses were encouraging, incredibly positive and helped me believe that I would be able to live a normal life after cancer,” she says.
Bolstered by their comfort and support, and realizing that she wanted to be able to spend a lot of time working intimately with patients, Mills chose nursing school after her recovery. Now working in Johns Hopkins’ prostate cancer ward, she finds that she draws on her own experience to enrich her work with her patients.
“I get the opportunity to walk with people along their cancer journey,” says Mills. “I am a little further down the road than they are and can point out different hazards, let them know that they are not alone, and that there is life after cancer.”
“I Wanted Work I Was Passionate About”
Susan Clark, RN, wasn’t going to be a nurse. Gifted in languages, she studied English and Spanish and thought about going into public policy or becoming a linguist, or even a medieval historian.
At sixteen, Clark lost her mother to suicide. Clark had become her mother’s primary caretaker through two years of clinical depression, when drug treatments were no longer effective. She had always enjoyed helping people, and after her mother’s death she sought more ways to care for others. After college, she volunteered in Honduras with the Peace Corps, working to ensure that children received proper nutrition.
Upon her return, Clark applied to a number of different programs before choosing Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Listening to faculty member Mary Terhaar, DNSc, RN, talk to the applicants about her passion for nursing, she knew she’d found where she belonged. Despite the odd hours of the night shift, Clark, who is also a licensed doula, has found that she loves working in the emergency ward at Johns Hopkins.
“Who’s Going to Feel Sorry for You? Not Me!”
The time had never really been right for Fran Slenbaker to finish nursing school. She tried more than once, but illness and hardship hit her family, and caring for them came first. When she applied to Towson University’s Department of Nursing, she was initially turned down.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” says Slenbaker. Her younger brother Butch was being treated for leukemia after coming out of remission, and she decided that the rejection meant that she needed to spend her time with him instead before he passed.
Arriving at Butch’s bedside in Johns Hopkins’ oncology ward a few months later while he was in treatment, however, she had wonderful news to share with him. She showed him the letter from Towson; she’d been accepted into the nursing program after all.
“Everybody that came into that room that day to take care of my brother,” she recounts, “he’d say, ‘This is my sister Fran and she’s going to be a nurse here one day.’”
The day after Butch’s doctors gave him a year to live, Fran was diagnosed with rectal cancer. It was exhausting to push forward with classes while undergoing chemotherapy, and loved ones urged her to take time off, but the brother she calls her “best friend” refused to let her pity herself and encouraged her to keep going. “Who’s going to feel sorry for you?” she remembers him saying. “Not me!”
Fueled by his support, she went to classes with IV lines in her arms; she sat in her brother’s hospital room while writing her papers. It was the nurses she encountered there who convinced her that she was making the right choice. “The nurses on these units took care of us as a whole,” she says. “They’d say to me, ‘Are you getting rest? Are you eating?’” Butch’s nurses even took an interest in her school work. She remembers one occasion when she was struggling to finish a paper on time, and one of her brother’s nurses looked up and printed out some material for her to help her get it done.
Slenbaker’s brother, who passed away before she finished nursing school, was prophetic. She survived cancer, passed her boards, and now works as an RN in the oncology ward where her brother was treated for so long.
“I Have the Best Job in the World”
All three nurses speak passionately about their love for nursing. “It’s so fulfilling,” Susan says. “I definitely feel like I have found my calling.” Nicole describes her work as “humbling and inspiring.”
Says Fran, “When a patient looks at you with tears in their eyes and says ‘Thank you,’ that’s worth so much. That’s worth everything.”