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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

When health care becomes health education

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Features

Center OF EDUCATION : Education has always been at the forefront of Brandeis health center director Kathleen Maloney. Before coming to Brandeis, Maloney worked for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the premier teacing hospitals in the United States. At Brandeis, Maloney has worked to both care for and educate the community.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Center OF EDUCATION : Education has always been at the forefront of Brandeis health center director Kathleen Maloney. Before coming to Brandeis, Maloney worked for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the premier teacing hospitals in the United States. At Brandeis, Maloney has worked to both care for and educate the community.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

In a drawer in her office, Kathleen Maloney keeps a file of thank you notes she’s received from students and their parents over the past 11 years.

Aside from these physical reminders of the countless patients she’s helped during her time as director of Brandeis’ Health Center, Maloney also holds onto more than a few special memories of the old-fashioned type. These are the more cherished mental ones – those of the students who come back to visit years after graduating just to thank her, the parents who call to discuss their problems, and the colleagues who trust her advice.

It’s the combination of the memories Maloney holds in her hand and those she holds in her mind that form a constant reminder of what she came here to do – help people – and how she has accomplished just that during her 30 years as an adult nurse practitioner.

You could even say knowing she’s helped these students gets Maloney through her nearly hour long commute from western Massachusetts every morning.

But Maloney is used to long journeys. After all, she didn’t complete her undergraduate degree until she was 42 years old. And it was only after years of working full and part time in her field while going to school that she finished her degree.

Maloney came to Brandeis in August of 1998 after 29 years with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. What was originally intended as a six-month stay to set up the Brandeis health center turned into a nearly 11 year career. After a few months at Brandeis, Maloney developed an interest in college health, resigned from her BIDMC position and stayed on as director of Brandeis’ health center.

But this nurse practitioner’s journey is coming to an end. And when she retires in May, Maloney will be three months shy of her 40th anniversary with BIDMC.

During this period and her time at BIDMC, Maloney has drawn upon her past experience to enrich the lives of many a student and colleague, and has sought to combine patient care with education to inform and to make students and their families feel secure.

“I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to learn a lot and [to] take care of really quite a wide range of people from a lot of socioeconomic backgrounds [and] to educate people about their illness,” she says. “It’s just been very, very rewarding.”

So why did she enter the health profession in the first place? Trying to avoid the clichéd “Because I wanted to help people” response, Maloney instead gives a generic answer and lets others speak for her.

“When you ask young folks what they want to do, when they say they want to be a nurse… it’s always that they want to help people,” she says. “And I think that is the reason people go into health care.”

Yet despite her attempts at modesty, the smile on Maloney’s face in describing the experience of helping others gives it all away, revealing this as the reason she, too, entered the field.

Maybe Maloney’s motivation emerged after her sister was diagnosed as a Diabetic at the age of 4. Perhaps it stemmed from the time she spent babysitting. Or maybe it was just pure passion for helping others. Whatever it was, it seems it was there all along.

“I always said that I wanted to be a nurse from a very, very young age,” she says.

Working at BIDMC, one of the premier teaching hospitals in the United States, certainly afforded Maloney with endless opportunities including the chance to work with physicians and nurses from some of the best programs in the country.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve had a wonderful career,” she says.

But for a woman who’s been working since she was 12 years old, the time seems about right to retire. First came babysitting, and then after her 16th birthday, Maloney worked in retail until she graduated from high school.

After high school, Maloney attended a licensed practical nurse program to increase her earning potential. In September of 1969, she moved to Boston to start work in a staff nurse position at BIDMC, simply called Beth Israel back then.

Because of her experience at BIDMC, Maloney now serves as more than just a nurse at Brandeis; she is also an educator. She has worked to provide healthcare and information to the entire Brandeis community in and out of the confines of the health center and, true to the goals of an educational institution such as Brandeis, Maloney realizes the importance of sharing knowledge with students. She chairs the Student Health Advisory Committee and has worked to empower transgender students, because of her commitment to LGBT issues.

Working so closely to patients and their families over the years has helped Maloney get to know them as human beings and not just patients. Although her patients at Brandeis generally live away from their family, Maloney has worked to forge similar connections here as those she formed at BI.

Dawn Skop, Brandeis health center’s alcohol and drug counselor, has worked with Maloney for seven years and says Maloney uses her greatest strength – her character – to earn students’ trust.

“She works to have a personal relationship with students when they are in the role of patient or coming in to work on a project,” she says. “She’s fair, she’s very ethical, [and] she really, really cares about the students.”

To many students living away at college, a health center is merely a substitute for their primary doctor back at home. It’s a reason to complain because of its large insurance fees and is usually seen as anything but “homey.” But Maloney has worked to change this at Brandeis.

Perhaps that’s most evident in the way members of the Brandeis community respond to Maloney when they run into her. On a normal walk around campus, Maloney will run into at least several people she knows.

“She knows everybody,” Skop explained.

Or maybe it becomes clear when Brandeis alumni stop by the health center just to say “hi” and update their former caregiver on their health situation.

Maloney has also worked to help Brandeis parents make dropping off their children a less nerve-wracking experience. When university employees tell parents to call them if they need anything, it’s understandably easy not to take this at face value.

After all, for someone who interacts with thousands of parents and students in an average year, it’d be easy for parents to doubt Maloney’s sincerity when she utters these words upon a first encounter during orientation in the parents’ tent.

But when Maloney tells parents this, they believe her. Last year, one such parent took Maloney up on this offer and called her. After talking to this parent, Maloney felt “honored that she not only held on to my card but [that] she felt I was sincere when I said, ‘give me a call if you need my help.’ Making those kinds of connections [is] very important to me.”

Education, too, has always been close to Maloney’s heart; this is why she worked both part time and full time while earning several of her degrees. After working on a medical/surgical floor of BI, she moved on to the Medical Intensive Care Unit and began taking evening courses at Boston State College at the time.

While working for BI’s outpatient department, Maloney was invited to a party for the departing director. After an introduction to and subsequent meeting with the director of nursing at Northeastern, Maloney was soon accepted into the school’s registered nurse/associate’s degree program.

She attended school while working and did the same part time while pursuing her nurse practitioner’s degree at Boston University and full time for her bachelor of science in nursing at Emmanuel College. For a woman who never took the SATs or other such exams to get into school, this was quite a feat, and one that took a fairly long time.

Though it took her a while to get to her current post, that’s always been just fine for Maloney because, in the end, she did get there.

“I certainly have no regrets,” she says. “I was still able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, but now it’s time [to retire].”

The health center is outsourced, meaning Maloney works at Brandeis but still works for BI. As director, Maloney manages a staff of 15 and doesn’t deal with patient care as much as when she worked in Boston, but she occasionally checks in on students or writes prescriptions.

Maloney certainly deals with a healthier patient population at Brandeis, but that was often not the case when working at BI at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, where she saw just how much it affected youth.

“I took care of a lot of young people there who lost the battle very, very early on. Some people I would literally meet and a week later they wouldn’t be with us any longer,” she recalls.

This experience and many more heavily influenced the way Maloney performs her job these days. For instance, one day 25 years ago while Maloney was working at BI, a man with severe heart disease walked in the door. Lacking a high school education, the man was hardly informed on the condition of his illness and the subsequent symptoms. So Maloney sat with the man for hours, teaching him about the signs and effects of his symptoms.

Thereafter, each time he was admitted to the hospital, this man resisted any change in medication as proposed by the head of cardiology. Maloney recalls his habitual reply with a smile: “Not without talking to the nurse,” she recalls.

In the end this man, like so many patients, died, but not without affecting Maloney’s attitude towards teaching in the future.

Without somebody taking the time to teach and care for him, this man’s doctors said he wouldn’t have survived as long as he did. Because of this, Maloney now emphasizes the important role teaching plays in the practice of nursing; something nursing students learn fast, she says.

“The challenge really, when you’re taking care of people is establishing a trusting relationship so that the patient knows that what you’re doing is in their best interest,” she says.

Some students want to know what you’re doing when you administer a tuberculosis test; others prefer you to stick the needle in and just get it over with. Learning to gauge a patient’s level of knowledge is at times very challenging but, Maloney says, “being able to do that and do that well, it’s a real skill.”

It’s a skill she’s perfected while working on a college campus.

“Kathleen values teaching students about how to use health care services constructively and developing this important skill for their future,” Skop says.

Although she has a lot to teach students, Maloney, a perpetual learner, has learned plenty from them, and she says working on a college campus keeps her young.

“I love the energy on the campus, I love working with the students, I love meeting with the students,” she says. “I think the older you get, you stay young by being around people that are young.”

Not enough that she’s turned into a tech guru, though. “I still don’t understand some of this facebook stuff and blogs,” she says, and then chuckles.

It’s this warm, welcoming quality that has won Maloney the respect of so many students and staff members over the years, as Skop’s admiration for her exhibits.

“She is one of the kindest, fairest and [most] compassionate supervisors I have ever worked with,” Skop says. “I think she rocks and I will really miss her [when she retires].”

Life from here on promises time in the garden, movies in the middle of the day, and

cherished time with a soon-to-be-born grandchild and her three grown children. Though she’ll be

leaving her day job, Maloney is sure to have a lot of people to care about in the years to come.