Halfway around the world, stranded on an island or at the neighbor’s barbecue, nurses care

by Sara Woelfel

The rigors of the nursing profession not only require applicants with specialized training, but also those who are prepared to sacrifice, be uncomfortable and endure potentially grim life-or-death situations for the sake of people they’ve just met.

“It’s not a glamorous job, and it’s not going to pay you mil­lions, but the fact of the matter is at the end of the day, we are driven to help others and serve people,” said Dr. Kelly Dries, ’03, ’14, dean of the Ruth S. Coleman College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Nurses can often remember the moment, the person, or the feeling that stirred them to choose a career that demands so much of them professionally and personally. The relationships, emotions and losses can take a toll, and yet nurses endure the long days and intense situations understanding this is their vocation, their gift.

“Nurses have a desire to improve the human condition; wheth­er that’s at work, through volunteering at a health literacy clinic or doing blood pressure checks at church, they help wherever they are needed,” said Assistant Professor Lori Stutte, chair of Stritch’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

That drive to help and be of service to others defines the work they do, but it also spurs them to react to any situation of people in need.

“Whether you’re at a picnic or on vacation, somebody inevita­bly will run up to you and say, ‘You’re a nurse, what do you think this is?’” Dries said. “So you use your physical assessment skills in many different ways, no matter where you may be.”

That intersection of professional and personal is common among nurses—and likely among other professions as well– and sometimes leads them to unexpected places where people may need an extra-special healing touch.

Two Stritch alumnae—Bobbi Caraway, ’86, and Sue Thiel, ’11 —in the course of ordinary life, stumbled upon extraordinary situations that now allow them to revisit what they love best about nursing—the intimacy of hands-on care, personal con­nections with patients, and the chance to improve everyday life through basic education and care. After years of life pulling them away from one-on-one patient interactions, each woman has put down roots in exotic locations where they are rediscov­ering their joy in nursing and how it defines them.

SUE THIEL, African Village Nurse

“Going to a developing country, providing nursing where people don’t feel entitled to it, it’s so beautiful, beyond words. I’m humbled by being in their country and being able to help them, even if I can only go there once a year.”

Most of the year, Sue Thiel serves as the manager for the Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby education and support program offered through Children's Community Health Plan. She is proud of the work the organization does and the ways it helps pregnant women and their families in Milwaukee.

Yet, the work she does day to day as a manager is so far removed from the women she serves that she finds herself missing the intimacy and connection that once made nursing so satisfying in the early years of her career. So annual trips to Mombasa, Kenya, with a church medical mission group fulfill her yearning to provide hands-on care.

“It’s been probably 20 years since I’ve been a staff nurse, and I think volunteering and going to Kenya allows me to have that relationship again that I so miss,” Thiel said. “This job isn’t what I originally signed up for, being behind a desk. I can’t tell you how many people have commented that they see a glow in my face when they see pictures of me working in Africa. It allows me the opportunity to be the nurse that I wanted to be since I was a little girl.”

As passionate as she is about nursing today, Thiel admits she initially chose the career because her dad wanted one of his three daughters to become a nurse. As the youngest whose two older sisters chose other paths, Thiel fulfilled the family obligation only to find she had a real passion and knack for nursing.

“I fell in love with not only taking care of people, but always being around them,” Thiel said. “Patients had to trust me, and I had to know what I was doing. So, I started out following my father’s dream, and it turned into the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

Thiel graduated in the mid-1970s initially with her associate degree from Waukesha County Technical College and went on to work at St. Francis Hospital for 25 years, first as a labor and delivery nurse and then for the last 10 as a supervisor. Then she worked at Bay View High School as a school nurse before doing part-time lab work at Bryant & Stratton College and then teach­ing as an adjunct instructor there, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at Stritch. In 2005, interested in advancing her career, she returned to school for her bachelor’s degree from Alverno College and then moved into the Master of Science in Nursing program at Stritch, graduating in 2011.

“I had a period of time in my career where I climbed the ladder and, now that I’m near the top, I’m ready to come down,” Thiel said.

She will return to Kenya for her third medical mission trip in February 2017, once again offering medical examinations to hundreds of children who attend three schools sponsored by her church and also to the surrounding commu­nity. The mission group will give out antibiotics, test for malaria, examine rashes, treat infections, and address a wide range of medical complaints with the hopes of providing relief. Thiel also hopes to work again with the women of the village.

“The last time I had the privilege to teach pregnant women about prenatal care,” Thiel said. “They had to learn through an interpreter, but I got on the concrete floor to show them how to alleviate back pain. They were so excited, they wouldn’t get out of the position.”

In addition, she plans to continue educating both the adults and children in the village about the importance of hydration. In a previous visit, she noticed that, despite 104 degree temperatures, the children were not regularly drink­ing water and many suffered from headaches, backaches and slightly elevated temperatures. When Thiel left Kenya last January, she encouraged the prin­cipal, teachers and local nurses to come up with a solution to the students’ chronic dehydration. They now make tubs of water and cups easily accessible in every classroom.

In the next few years, Thiel envisions spending a year in Kenya and perhaps being part of a new pregnancy center in the works through the church. While it’s difficult for her to imagine leaving her two sons and their families for a full year, she believes God is calling her to live her spiritual life through nursing.

“I’m open to whatever God’s direction is for me,” Thiel said. “I want to be his servant. I feel like I’ve been blessed with having a good job, making enough money, advancing myself, and getting an education, so I have to give back. Life is not about gaining and then not doing anything with it, but about having gifts and using those gifts for good.”

Read more about Thiel's past and upcoming trips on her blog.

BOBBI CARAWAY, Island Nurse

Approximately five months out of the year, Bobbi Caraway and her husband Jim, live on a bridgeless island off the Florida Gulf Coast. Not long after they settled there in 2004, their neighbors on the 100-residence island learned quite by chance about Caraway’s nursing background. 

“One of the kids who lived across from us had a rash,” Caraway said. “I looked at it and told them what to do for it. And the grand­mother asked, ‘How do you know that?’”

Word quickly spread by “coconut telegraph” and Caraway unof­ficially became the island nurse.

“I started giving allergy shots to one person, helped another diabetic man manage his problems, and identified shingles early enough to save a man from a lot of misery,” Caraway said. “And then the word really got out. And I didn’t mind, because people didn’t take advantage of me.”

Caraway keeps her license current to allow her to perform nursing duties as needed on the island, including when she provided home care to a woman dying of cancer and an emergency situation when an unconscious resident needed immediate care and a boat ride to the nearest hospital. (He was OK.)

Fortunately, she is not the only medical profes­sional on the island. Four years ago, Caraway sat on a committee to find a new fire chief and, upon her recommendation, they hired a married couple with the husband serving as fire chief and the wife offer­ing services as a physician assistant.

Providing care and nurturing to an entire island of people comes naturally to Caraway, who offers advice, empathy and outreach as easily to com­plete strangers as to cherished loved ones. From an early age, aptitude tests identified nursing as an ideal profession for her personality, and she often exercised those skills growing up, especially as she cared for her younger brother, Mark Sklar, at times when her parents were ill. Unfortunately, her father deemed nursing as unsuitable for a “nice Jewish girl,” so she married at age 17 to please her parents.

In the years after she married, Caraway raised her four children while earning a bachelor’s degree in general arts from the University of Wisconsin— Milwaukee (married women were not allowed to enroll in hospital-based nursing programs at that time), an endeavor that took 18 years on a very part-time basis.

“My hobby really was going to school and getting my degree,” Caraway said. “I didn’t play tennis or cards or anything. That is what I did, and I was with my children.”

In the early 1980s, against the wishes of her first husband, she enrolled at Stritch to earn her long-awaited nursing license through a two-year associate program.

“I knew if I didn’t do it, I would be 60 and say, ‘I wish I’d done that,’” Caraway said.

Her first Stritch clinical placed her at the Milwaukee Jewish Home where she immediately impressed the administrator.

“My first day, they were explaining everything to us, and I saw someone I knew in a wheelchair,” Caraway said. “When there was a pause, I knelt in front of her and was talking to her. So the head ad­ministrator of the nursing home said, ‘I know you’re just starting, but if you ever want to work here, you have a job.’ I think she recognized my warmth and how I have a connection with people. That’s very important for nursing.”

So, she started out as a floor nurse at the Milwaukee Jewish Home. Then, when a back injury prevented her from continuing the rigors of patient care, the nursing home, in an effort to keep her on staff, cre­ated a position for her as a wellness/nurse educator. Caraway later gave up that job when her mother, Ruth S. Coleman, for whom Stritch’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences is named, became sick. Caraway set everything else aside to provide nursing care to her mother full time until she died in 2007.

Now in retirement, Caraway continues to nurse and nurture not only through medical care, but also as she cooks for and hosts guests and as she advises and provides occasional care for her adult children and grandchildren who are spread from coast to coast. After starting her adult life living her parents’ dream, Caraway now is living a life that’s all about hers.

And, over time, she discovered that, yes, indeed, nice Jewish girls ARE nurses…for life.