Gitzlaff moves on from food service to fulfill lifelong dream of becoming a nurse

by Scott Rudie, ‘05

It could be said that Dan Gitzlaff, ’13, began his career in food service and hospitality at the age of 6.

Growing up with his family on a vacation resort in Park Falls, Wis., Gitzlaff was assigned various chores by his father, who owned the property. Whether he was 6 or 16, there was always much for Gitzlaff to do in the cabin and restaurant areas of the resort. As a part of that culture from such an early age, he found himself continuing on the same path into adulthood.

“It’s almost like it was chosen for me,” he said. “I think it’s one of those things that as life progresses you just end up doing it.”

Gitzlaff majored in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Wisconsin—Stout, and specialized in the industry as an adult. He worked with a food service provider for more than 20 years, both within higher education and in public K-12 school districts in the Milwaukee area.

“I was in the trenches,” he said. “I was in lunch lady land.”

In 2010, the food service contract at his school ended, and Gitzlaff was offered a new assignment in Chicago. Firmly established in the Milwaukee area with his wife and three children, he had no interest in relocation or a very long commute.

Nonetheless, the loss of his job presented an opportunity, and he revisited his childhood dream.

“I always wanted to be a nurse,” he said. “My mom was a nurse, but she didn’t practice at home, so I really don’t know why I wanted to be a nurse.”

His dreams never progressed, however. His father, influenced by the common nursing stereotypes of the era, did not encourage him in this new profession. He often said to his son, “Men can’t be nurses.”

Decades later, life provided an ideal opportunity to reconsider his choices.

“Losing my job was probably the worst thing and the best thing that happened to me,” he said. “It’s pretty bad for your ego when you no longer have a job, and I felt sorry for myself for about two or three months. And then, one day, I started looking for nursing programs online.”

Gitzlaff graduated from Stritch with an Associate of Science in Nursing degree in December 2013, and found his first nursing job in March at Froedtert Hospital, working in the oncology and palliative care unit. The contrast between his old and new careers is profound, he said.

“My passion was gone,” he said. “Now at work, I go home and I feel that I accomplished something, no matter what it is. There are days that I feel I’m over my head, but I haven’t had one person say, ‘No, I won’t help you.’ It’s a supportive environment.”

At age 48, Gitzlaff is quick to encourage those younger than he is – especially his three college-age children – to follow their passions. But he also knows that the road to becoming a nurse was more complex than that simple piece of advice.

“I have close to 50 years of life skills; I really think it’s the age thing,” he said. “As much as I wanted to be a nurse when I was young, I don’t think I could have pulled it off. I think time and age made me a better student, and it’s making me a better nurse.”

As Gitzlaff graduates and begins his new career, he finds himself and his children at a similar crossroads. While he completed his ADN program from Stritch, his two daughters, Samantha and Emily, graduated from college as well, and his son, Cameron, graduated from high school.

“It was a very busy year,” he said with a smile. “That was our Christmas card: it had pictures of the four graduations. Through it all, my kids have been amazing. When I graduated, my son posted a picture of him and me on Facebook, and he wrote, ‘Don’t worry. Nurse Dan is on the job.’ I was a little verklempt by that.”

Gitzlaff also has decided to continue his studies at Stritch in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing completion program. He acknowledges that that he still has much to learn as a new nurse, but he is energized by the possibilities that his new field presents to him.

“As a food service manager, I was trapped. What else could I have done? And then I look at what I can do now. There’s so much that I can do as a nurse. I know there will be days when I’m hanging my head, but I don’t think I ever felt this excited about my old job as what I’m doing right now.”

In his first months as a nurse, Gitzlaff said he has seen some amazing things. During his first day on the job, he treated a patient with terminal cancer, a man who was very close to his own age. In that instant, his difficult choice to reinvent himself came into complete focus.

“It put things into perspective, and it makes me glad that I did what I did,” he said. “Because you realize how precious life is, and how quickly things can change. I could be him next month. You don’t know. So I guess my overall advice is – don’t be 45 years old and hate what you do.”