Ruth Stephenson’s first nursing job was on an Indian reservation in a rural, barren area of South Dakota. Her second job was at an Atlanta Veterans’ Association (V.A.) facility where she treated soldiers affected by the ravages of World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Her third? That was at a psych ward she said could only be described as straight out of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And that was only in her first three years out of college.
Stephenson, a current nursing professor at Queens and this year’s winner of the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching award, explained that she uses her many years of intensive—and widely varying— nursing experience in the classroom on a daily basis.
But Stephenson is not just a teacher in the eyes of the students. Her battles with a rare kidney disease have made her a role model, said Cherie Clark, a Queens University professor of psychology.
When the committee for the Hunter-Hamilton Award was considering Stephenson, one member of the committee summed it up best, Clark said, by saying that Stephenson had “an almost a heroic quality about her.”
Stephenson was born in 1950 in Marion, South Carolina. After graduating from Marion High School, Stephenson went to what was then the Medical College of Georgia. Upon receiving her nursing degree, she worked as a teacher’s assistant for a while before starting her first “real” job as a nurse.
Living with the Sioux
Stephenson decided to leave the South for South Dakota when a job opportunity arose. But, she found her new city to be rural and the landscape sparse.
“It was very non-treed,” she said.
Stephenson had lived her whole life up until that point in the South’s lush forestry and found the lack of trees discomforting.
But the landscape wasn’t the only thing to which Stephenson had to get acclimated. Stephenson’s job and the accompanying apartment down the hill were located on a Sioux Indian reservation. She learned very quickly that the Sioux culture was proud and strong, but very different from what she had known before she came to South Dakota.
She described this place as a whole new world. Her first trip on the ambulance proved that. During this shift on the ambulance, she and her co-workers received a call about a deceased gentleman. Upon arriving at the scene, they found the man frozen to death on a tree.
“We had to cut [down] the tree in order to bring the guy in,” she explained.
To Stephenson, the poverty on this reservation was startling, too.
One man named Leroy lived in the hospital because his house had no electricity.
From the very first day she came to the hospital, Leroy took an interest in Stephenson and her education in the Sioux culture.
“The first time I met him he said, ‘I bet you want to learn some Lakota, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘sure I’d love to.’”
It was after she replied to that question that Leroy gave Stephenson her first cultural lesson.
She had looked him in the eyes when she replied. He promptly told her not to look him in the eyes. In the Sioux culture, eyes reveal the soul, Stephenson said.
“And my soul is none of your business,” she said, explaining Leroy’s reaction.
Stephenson stayed on the Indian reservation for about a year.
Stephenson’s next job was in Atlanta.
“From Rosebud, South Dakota, which is about this big to Atlant” she demonstrated by moving her hands to make a tiny circle with her handsand then opening them wide.
Stephenson took a job at a veterans’ hospital. While medically the issues at the veterans’ hospital were comparable to those on the Indian reservation, she thought that environmentally the veterans’ hospital was much better.
After working at the veteran’s hospital for less than year, Stephenson moved on to a division of a hospital for the criminally insane.
“You had to take jujitsu in order to work in the unit I was in,” she said, adding, “I used to have a decent kick, years [and] years ago.”
Stephenson saw widespread problems with the treatment of the patients.
“I could never prove it,” Stephenson said. “But, I swear, they [the nursing assistants] put bar soap in the towels and hit people.”
The patients also had to walk outside to get to the dining hall, which meant the doors had to be unlocked to allow them out of the building, she said. Escapes were common. One patient, Paul, who was a frequent escapee, was known to the FBI for trying to kill people—specifically the president. So, every time Paul escaped, they had to call the FBI, she said.
One day, he came up to Stephenson, who had just moved into a new house, and said, “You’re eyes are too big. I know where you live.”
He proceeded to give Stephenson step-by-step directions to her house. Paul escaped that weekend.
“I called the guy that I was madly in love with and said ‘bring you shepherds over,’” she said. Luckily, nothing happened.
She thought she was in love with this guy from back home, so she took the job to be closer to him.
Stephenson stayed there about a year before she decided to leave.
“The guy that I was madly in love with said, ‘You know, do you really want to stay with them? You’re beginning to talk like you work in the psych ward,’” she stated.
So he suggested she go back and work with high-risk infants like she had in college.
“So, I left crazy people and went to the ICU.”
After that, Stephenson went on to work as a nurse in several other places.
Teaching at Queens
Stephenson came to Queens in January of 1991 and applied all of the experiences she had learned as a nurse to her lessons. From her work at the Indian reservation to her experiences with the criminally insane to even her more mundane jobs, all of her experiences became learning tools for her students—and it didn’t hurt that they were pretty interesting, too.
Stephenson takes the time to tell students about her experiences, “sharing her wealth of knowledge that she learned from a variety of jobs,” said Angela Steele, a second semester senior nursing student at Queens.
“She loves community health. You can tell when a person loves what they do, when they’re passionate and when they light up when they’re talking about it,” Steele said. “Ruth does that.”
When Stephenson started to deal with her own medical situation, her classroom policy of openness about learning from real-life experiences was expanded to her own health crisis.
“She’ll share it with students in nursing as a teaching example,” Clark said. “But she won’t use it as an excuse.”
In 1998, at age 48, Stephenson was diagnosed with kidney disease. She had experienced high-blood pressure for a while and had been going to the best diagnostician in town.
“He kept saying you need to lose weight,” she said. “And I kept saying I was too tired.”
One night, she went to the hospital, “And the hospitalist said ‘you’re a good historian and you didn’t tell me you had kidney disease,’” she said. “And I said, ‘I don’t.’”
Stephenson was on dialysis for five years before getting a kidney transplant doctors told her would never come.
The kidney lasted for 10 years before failing in November, 2013. Stephenson is not on a kidney transplant list now because she is 12 pounds over the weight limit.
“If I had surgery right now, I’d probably die,” she said. “Surgery is the equivalent of running a marathon as far as stress on the body.”
Both times around, the staff at Queens has been wonderful to Stephenson, she said. Clark, a close friend of Stephenson, has been especially helpful, Stephenson said.
In 1998, Clark went through training with Stephenson to allow her to go through dialysis at home rather than at a clinic. For more than four years, Clark spent three days a week at Stephenson’s house, making sure the dialysis was going as planned.
When Stephenson started dealing with her kidney disease again, the staff wanted to find a way to show support for Stephenson, Clark said.
So, they decided to make t-shirts and ask for donations to help Stephenson pay her medical bills. The amount of people who wanted to wear the t-shirts and donate money was a testament to Stephenson, Clark explained.
“It was incredible,” she said. “People love her.”