Walking a Mile With Nurses

By | 2022-02-14T17:38:58-05:00 December 6th, 2010|0 Comments

The first career choice for Irene Stemler, RN, BSN, dated to grade school.

“My first recollection of even thinking of a career was in fifth grade,” she said. “I wanted to be an archeologist or an anthropologist or something with unearthing stories of how people lived.”

After decades of working in various nursing settings, Stemler is telling stories of those close to her heart — nurses.

A career that has spanned work as a nurse from pediatrics and NICU to long-term care and assisted living allowed Stemler to hear plenty of stories.

Along with her current work as a nurse recruiter at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill., she travels the U.S. as an exhibitor and author of the 2009 book, “Heroic Acts in Humble Shoes: America’s Nurses Tell Their Stories.”

“I think it’s important for nurses to hear each others’ stories in a very down-to-earth way,” she said. “It’s such a powerful experience. The nurse and I inevitably end up crying sometime during the telling. Many times, this is the first time this nurse has been able to share this story.”

Stemler, who interviews nurses about triumph, tragedy and everything in between, said stories were an integral part of her work as a case manager.

“I felt that I was really, truly a patient advocate, and I was able to use my storytelling skills to work with insurance case managers,” she said. “Whenever I started a new case with someone … I always told them more about the patient. I would create a story around the patient’s experience. I thought it was very empowering. It made it more human.”

While working at a Chicago hospital in 2001, she noticed a display called “Shoes of Famous Chicagoans.” From Mayor Richard M. Daley’s worn wing tips to former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen’s size 15 basketball sneakers to a ballerina’s frequently mended slippers to the boots a firefighter wore while saving a grandmother from a burning building, Stemler was enthralled. “I thought, ‘Here we are in a hospital. Where are the nurses’ shoes?’” Stemler said.

After bringing up the question to co-workers, Stemler was encouraged to begin her own collection. “That’s how it started,” she said.

In the book, nurses’ stories are introduced with pictures of their shoes instead of their faces. “I comment on shoes all the time to people I don’t even know,” Stemler said. “There’s so much more you learn about a person [from their shoes].”

The pages are graced with a Chicago professor’s open-toed sandals, a Texas neuroscience nurse’s shoes with cat’s faces on the toes and a critical care nurse from Georgia’s worn sneakers that reside a few pages from his Army nurse son’s combat boots.

“It’s interesting to [read about] other nurses across the spectrum,” she said. “We’re all alike. We have the same goals and the same things that motivate us. It just happens to be a different type of unit, or the patient’s a little taller.”

Amid all the stories, she has heard nurses’ frustrations as well. “It’s from not being able to be a nurse and really do your work as a nurse,” said Stemler, who noted nurses often integrate patient care with non-nursing tasks. “That takes away from the time [a nurse] can actually talk to somebody who was going for a mastectomy the next day.”

Stemler encouraged nurse leaders to “say a thank you. That’s the beginning of creating a healthier work force.”

During her work interviewing nurses, Stemler’s family members asked her to interview them as well.

“I brought my tape recorder and my notes,” said Stemler, who heard about the family farm in Poland, her mother’s four siblings and the family’s journey to the U.S.

For the first time, she learned about the work her grandfather did. “[He] was a shoemaker,” Stemler said. “I feel as if I’m following in his footsteps in a weird way. It’s not a fluke.”

Barry Bottino is a regional editor for Nursing Spectrum.

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