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Healing begins with competence, compassion, connection

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton

What people want most in a medical professional is competence, said Patricia Butterfield, dean of the Washington State School of Nursing in Spokane.

Patricia Butterfield
Patricia Butterfield teaches future nurses.

Next, they want someone who resonates with their suffering and connects with them personally.

“That’s where healing comes through the world of nursing,” she said.  “I seek to ensure that our students who are hungry to learn are agents of change in health care.”

Patricia considers health care a right, not a commodity, so she believes that public health services that reach under-served people go hand-in-hand with social justice.

“There is a disparity in health care today, in how and to whom it is delivered,” she said.

At the nursing school, she educates students to meet future needs of health care and advocates for equitable access to health care.

The nursing school has nearly 150 faculty and staff at Spokane’s main Riverpoint campus and at branches across the state that serve 1,100 students.

Patricia encourages staff to teach students to be agents of change who challenge health systems when they become nurses.

“This generation also recognizes a need to spend their lives doing something they have a passion to do,” she said.

The faculty want nurses to be committed to their practice for 40 years.

My heart is with public health services,” she said. “Having access to quality health care and the ability to stay alive should not depend on whether someone has a job or an insurance policy.  When systems break down, the needs of society are not met.”

Patricia recognizes the challenges of providing universal health care, particularly preventive programs.  It’s hard to show the impact of prevention.

“Public health supports prevention programs, but their services are not necessarily recognized, said Patricia, who believes she and others at the school of nursing have a responsibility to shape the health of a community, and she recognizes that environments people live in contribute to their health challenges.

 “It saddens me to see health portrayed only as personal behavior with no connection to the fact that the challenges of good health are much deeper,” Patricia said.

There may be contaminants, such as radon, in the home, or wells may be contaminated and residents have no idea.

Those risks may lay the groundwork years later for children who were exposed, she said.  For example, lead paint exposure was permitted by an industry that was aware of the risks before their products were taken off the market.

“Millions of children, including in North Idaho and Montana, had lead exposure that caused high blood pressure, kidney disease and even behavioral problems,” said Patricia, who also tracks the impact of pesticides among Washington’s farm workers.

“I have several colleagues looking at seasonal workers and their struggles to provide safe housing for their families. We know pesticides end up on clothing and the bottom of shoes.  When farm workers come home after work the residue is transferred to carpets, furniture and beds.”

Another factor Patricia considers is access to healthy foods.

“We have food deserts in our country, ” Patricia said. “Fresh fruit and vegetables, and other healthful foods are often not accessible. There are many grocery stores in affluent neighborhoods, but low-income neighborhoods have mostly fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

Patricia promotes community farmers markets, which offer local access to produce, are good for families and local economies, and help local agriculture.

Reflecting on WSU’s vision for the Spokane Riverpoint campus, Patricia sees that the future of the downtown campus will provide a teaching environment for doctors, nurses and pharmacists that reinforce the need and the respect for these professions.

“Despite challenging budget cuts, WSU recognizes the value of collaboration in education in non-traditional ways and how a community commitment is the key to ensuring success,” she said.

“From the mayor, legislators and businesses to the medical community, Spokane supports WSU’s vision for future health education,” she said.

“We are trying to be innovative at a time when the state does not have the funds available,” Patricia said. “Every week we face challenging budget choices.”

A lifelong Catholic, she said faith drives her leadership style and centers her.

Working in a public institution she appreciates the sense of value that each student brings to nursing, as well as patient respect and public health services.

After moving to Spokane in 2007, she found community and a commitment to social justice at St. Ann’s Catholic Church.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1976 at the University of Colorado, she was a nurse at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena, Mont., for two years.

Desiring to be a public health nurse, she earned a master’s in public health nursing in 1980 at the University of Colorado.  While studying, she was an evening public health nurse for the City and County of Denver, making home visits to people discharged from Denver General Hospital.

“Most had wounds from violence—a gunshot, a knife wound or a vehicle accident,” Patricia said. “I learned about people living in downtown Denver hotels or public housing.”

She taught seven years at Montana State University, and then was a hospice patient-care coordinator, home-health nurse and assistant professor and research assistant at Boise State University’s College of Health Sciences.

After earning a doctorate from the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland in 1992, she studied occupational and environmental health and environmental epidemiology.  Then she taught another nine years at Montana State University.

She taught four years at the University of Washington in Seattle and headed the occupational and environmental health nursing program, before coming to Spokane.

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