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Noted nursing expert Pat Potter reflects on changes to the field of nursing over her 40-year career

Pat Potter, a former nurse in St. Louis, is noted in the field for her textbook "Fundamentals of Nursing," which is used to teach new nursing students across the country. She retired earlier this spring.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Pat Potter, a former nurse in St. Louis, is noted in the field for her textbook "Fundamentals of Nursing," which is used to teach new nursing students across the country. She retired earlier this spring.

Patricia Potter is noted in the field of nursing for her textbook “Fundamentals of Nursing,” which is used for new nursing students across the country, as well as her groundbreaking teaching of resiliency in nursing, which helps nurses manage stress by combating “compassion fatigue.”

Earlier this spring, Potter retired after 46 years as a nurse, 41 of those she spent at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. At the time of her retirement, Potter was the hospital’s director of research.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Potter joined host Don Marsh to discuss what she’s learned in the field of nursing over the past 40 years and how she’s making contributions to the field after her retirement with a slate of scholarships for underserved youth.

One of those scholarships is called the Nurses for Ferguson Scholarship, which provides a small amount of educational funding for two students who have been accepted to nursing school. Only students from within the Ferguson-Florissant School District are eligible for the scholarship.

She was inspired by the aftermath in the police shooting death of Michael Brown.

“I was watching the news with regard to what was going on with the Ferguson event and I felt very similar to how I felt during 9/11,” Potter said. “I was beginning to feel numb, it is so sad what is happening in our city. I knew I was not much of a demonstrator and I couldn’t take a toolbox to help rebuild anything. I thought: maybe I can do something to help kids pursue a nursing career.”

So far, six students have been granted the scholarship. Potter is still looking for people to help fund the scholarship here

Potter said that the field of nursing has changed greatly over her four decade career, starting with the kind of education now available. Nurses can now pursue far more options, including graduate work, than a two year degree in nursing, which was available when Potter was starting out. A challenge, Potter noted, is that programs are now shifting emphasis on clinical experience to community work, which has shifted responsibility to hospitals for training new nurses.

The relationship between nurses and doctors has also shifted, Potter said, becoming more collaborative.

“Physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions —nurses treat the patient’s response to those conditions,” Potter said. “If you have serious arthritis, your physicians will treat you for the pain, the changes in mobility you have, but we nurses can provide you alternatives. Nurse practitioners [nurses who have pursued a graduate degree] have a very holistic view of patient care. They’re not only interested in the physical problem, which they can manage and prescribe but they are tuned into how that impacts you at home, how does it impact your family, how can we keep you functional long term. They have incredible value and impact. They are important here but they also have great impact in rural communities, where there are fewer physicians.”

There is a shortage of nurses, as with doctors, who practice general medicine, Potter said.

“Nurses who work on a general medicine floor have the hardest job there is. They have to know about arthritis, lung disease, heart disease and on and on and on,” Potter said. “If you’re in a small community hospital, that list is longer. When you can work in an academic hospital, in a specialty area, you can focus your knowledge. There is a shortage of general medicine nurses. Research has shown that the level of burnout is highest among general practitioners.”

One of the highlights of Potter’s career has been the development of curriculum to combat “compassion fatigue” and create resiliency among nurses.

“People falsely look at the term thinking we get tired of being compassionate,” Potter said. “That’s not really it. It is the fatigue that results from being compassionate and caring. It is a combination of seeing people suffering and dealing with challenges in the workplace when you don’t feel like you have the resources to manage them.”

Potter said that seeing patients who do not get better, who die or make bad decisions, can emotionally wear on a nurse. That results in fatigue, less socialization, bad eating habits and other stressful outcomes. She crafted a class to manage stress and help nurses turn off their work when they go home.

Looking back on her career, she hopes that nurses who get into the field today come into it for the primary reason that they care about people, even as salaries increase in the profession.

“One big thing that has changed over the years is the salaries,” Potter said. “Are nurses getting paid significant dollars? I can only say they are getting paid more now today. There are opportunities to get a good salary, but I believe that attracts people to the profession for the wrong reasons. It is important to care about people, recognize you’ll have to be a good communicator, and you’ll learn a lot of personal things about the people you’ll take care of. It is a lot of work.”  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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