In a world where many people are feeling overwhelmed by health concerns, Professor Aneesha Jean is working hard to teach Caldwell University nursing students how to empower their patients and communities to embrace health. She has seen firsthand how important equipping others with the information they need to make healthy choices can be.
For Jean, treating patients with care and respect is personal. She was inspired to pursue nursing by her grandmother, Mary Lou James, who worked as a live-in health care attendant. “She would come home from her patient assignments after being gone for two or three days at a time and I would meet her at the bus stop,” Jean says. “In those brief moments, she would tell me about her time at work. As a child, I saw what she meant to her patients and how fulfilling the work was.”
Jean found herself with her first patient before she had entered high school or had begun her pursuit of a nursing degree. That patient was her grandma, the same one who had prompted her love of nursing. She cared for her, acting as her nurse and advocate as she navigated the complexities of the health care system. Although her grandmother died in 2018, her inspiration and influence live on in her granddaughter.
“I believe nursing is a special profession because the nurse has the privilege and honor to care for the individual and family during some of the most vulnerable times,” Jean says. “Supporting people through health promotion and mitigation measures during life crises, such as birth, illness and death, has been a calling. I am inspired by the patients and others like my grandmother who need advocates and professionals that empower them to live life to their fullest potential.”
Many skills go into nursing, and Jean knows that equipping students with those skills during their time at the university is key to helping them do their jobs effectively in the future. Jean comes armed with an impressive résumé, including time working as a clinical instructor at the Valley Hospital and as the director of wellness services and field nurse supervisor at the nonprofit HomeCare Option. A first-generation college student, she holds an undergraduate degree from a joint BSN program with Ramapo College, Englewood Hospital and UMDNJ, a master’s in nursing education from Ramapo/UMDNJ (now Rutgers University) and a doctorate in nursing practice with a focus on health literacy and patient engagement from William Paterson University.
Like many professions, nursing involves being a strong multitasker. In a non-pandemic semester, Jean would be teaching in the classroom, working alongside students in on-campus labs and traveling to supervise nursing rotations for students in hospitals and community sites. With the necessary changes this year, she is equally busy with many jobs. Jean teaches on campus and remotely, is a course coordinator, oversees work in the on-campus lab and has joined a team that works to ensure Caldwell University is following proper safety protocols and delivering an effective education to students throughout the pandemic.
“Caldwell has been very proactive about their approach and their plan to return to campus,” Jean says. “They’re working to make sure the campus is safe for both faculty and students and staying current with guidelines set by the government and CDC.”
COVID-19 has offered Jean an opportunity to educate students on real-world issues. “When the pandemic first hit our nation, as it was emerging, it was very timely for my course. That was when I was teaching students about public health and public health policy and infection control and infectious disease control.”
Jean has incorporated lessons from the stages of the pandemic into her classes. Students will likely graduate into a world that is still dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19, and they will need to know how to care for their communities in an effective way. Jean and her colleagues have been quick to add features to classes that will serve students. Those include the addition of a telehelp program that students can use to contact the residents of Marion Manor—HUD housing adjacent to the campus where many Sisters of St. Dominic live—for wellness checks. Jean and the others also are emphasizing the mental health component of courses and offering training in proper contact tracing for COVID-19.
Whatever the type of nursing, preparing students to educate patients is a key component of care. That has not changed with the arrival of the pandemic.
“You have to listen to your patient,” Jean says. “Listen to what their concerns are. You have to validate their concerns. You have to be ready to confront their concerns with correct and accurate information. A lot of their fears are based on misinformation.” Once a patient has been educated, it is important to trust patients to make the best choices they can. “Listen and understand where your patient is coming from, counter with accurate and timely information and then give them the full picture,” Jean says, describing her advice to students. “Tell them, ‘This is what can happen,’ and make sure that they can understand that and allow them to make an informed decision.”
In that moment of trust, nurses have the opportunity to legitimize the decision-making ability of patients. “We miss an opportunity when we don’t focus on the empowerment piece of health and health literacy and making sure that people can make informed decisions about their health choices and behaviors.”
Jean is determined that students leaving the nursing program at Caldwell will be prepared to offer their patients the highest quality care. One way she and the rest of the staff in the nursing program do that is through simulations. In these simulated events, a student might enter a lab that has been modeled after a bedroom. The student might be tasked with treating a patient who is elderly, with a geriatric concern such as wound care or diabetic education. Even though the patient is actually a mannequin, the student is expected to practice proper communication and care, giving simulated health care education based on the patient’s needs. Lab coordinators observe and give the students feedback.
Through relevant coursework, telehelp conferencing and simulated experiences, students learn how to effectively care for their communities. They also benefit from the experience of Jean, who knows how to bring concepts from the classroom into real-life situations. She is confident her nursing students will be ready when they graduate and enter the workforce. “My goal is to give the students the opportunity to learn some of those important community and public health concepts and to be prepared to deal with the public—to help individual families and communities to be empowered to make healthier decisions and choices.” n
—Nicole Burrell ’09