Jessica Mathiak is on a mission.
"When I was 19, my grandfather was admitted to the hospital and was in a coma for 10 days," she said. "The entire time that we were there, he and our family were treated terribly by the physicians and the nurses because he battled substance abuse. He then died in the OR and the surgeon told my mother that he bled 'like a stuffed pig.'"
She vowed then and there to become a nurse and take a different approach to providing care.
With an associate degree in nursing, a bachelor's in education and master's in healthcare administration, Mathiak enrolled in Eastern Michigan University's online RN to BSN program in order to build her clinical hospital leadership skills.
"All leadership positions require a BSN. I wanted to get this degree so that I could check that last box off my list and be more flexible with positions within the hospital," said Mathiak, who works as a trauma program coordinator with oversight of program integrity at Detroit Medical Center Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital.
She plans to work on policy change en route to her ultimate career goal of chief nursing officer.
"I want to make changes for both patients and nurses, to change the number of patients that we carry, and address the lack of resources we have at the federal level," she said.
She also wants to implement systemic changes that give nurses the freedom to take more initiative on the job.
"I want to make it safer for nurses to practice and help them become more independent through nurse-initiated protocols," she said. "That way, they will be empowered to get the ball rolling on early intervention."
With only three classes to go, Mathiak is ready to make a real start on her goals.
Looking for Proof
The EMU online RN to BSN program gave Mathiak her first taste of fully online learning. Though she misses the face-to-face interaction with classmates, she is pleased with the portability of the digital classroom.
"I can do the learning when it works for me," she said. "I have two small children and work full time, so when I put them to bed, I can sit down, read and do the classes."
It may be difficult at times for Mathiak to find the two hours per day she needs to keep up with her studies, but the skills she is adding help her provide better care as a nurse and keep her moving toward the finish line. Her husband, Mike, and children, Dylan (9) and Logan (6), provide plenty of support and encouragement.
"The Essentials of Professional Nursing Practice classes have taught me to find evidence-based articles and look for proof to make sure that I am doing the best thing for our patients and for our outcomes," Mathiak said. "Doing that research and learning ways to do research has been very helpful in my job. A lot of the time in nursing, we take things at face value because we were told by leadership or a colleague that this was the right way to do things."
The applicability of the online coursework to her job affirmed her decision to earn a BSN, and she is proud to be setting a good example for her children.
"It's definitely a sacrifice when you're an adult learner, and you have a family and a job that you're committed to," she said. "But it's important that my kids see me work hard and do it, because they know it's something I need to do so we can have a better life for our family."
A better life for her family means a better life for her patients. Honing research methods and clinical practices is helping Mathiak provide a higher level of care, but her approach to nursing goes beyond cold, hard facts — there is also heart.
Films and Advocacy
Poor treatment of her family by healthcare staff opened Mathiak's eyes to the importance of patient advocacy. Her opportunity to explore social justice issues came through an unlikely source.
"In my Nurse as Advocate class [NURS 365W], we watched several movies and talked about the health advocacy and social issues the movies addressed outside of the hospital setting," Mathiak said. "It opened up an area that I never thought about before with legal matters, advocacy and legislation, where nursing organizations advocate for legal change and reform in the state's capital, or at the federal level."
Of the films she watched for the course, Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, gave Mathiak the most insight into a nurse's capacity for influence.
"The movie is about a man who was fired for having AIDS in the early '90s when people still thought that you could get AIDS by using the same water fountain as somebody or touching their hand," she said. "It made me think about the patients I take care of and how it's second nature to treat them the exact same way that I would treat anybody else, regardless of what their condition is."
Mathiak is determined to make a difference by pushing for systemic changes that will mean equitable treatment for all. She realizes that an awareness of social issues along with a research-based stance gives nurses more say in improving patient care.
"At first I had a hard time with the class, wondering why we were watching these films in a nursing program," she said. "Initially I thought, 'I can't control some of this stuff,' but I quickly started to understand that we actually do have a lot more power than what we think."
Learn more about EMU's online RN to BSN program.
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