During a flu shot clinic on campus, physician assistant student Savanna R. Stauffer, ’17, draws a dose of the vaccine into a syringe.

Helping & Healing

People skills make an impact

by Elaine J. Lambert, retired special assistant to the president for creative development and public relations. Photos by Jennifer A. Cline and Brian Sheffield

Published March 4, 2019

“It’s not the knee in Exam Room 4. It’s not the shoulder in Exam Room 7. That’s a person, and they come with a story, and they come with feelings.”

Words from Tina M. Evans, associate professor of applied health studies, describe how Pennsylvania College of Technology faculty view the importance of people skills in health and human service professions. 

Evans and other Penn College faculty are featured in “Working Class: Helping & Healing,” the fifth in a series of Telly Award-winning documentaries produced by Penn College and WVIA Public Media. Each career-focused episode explores how students prepare for the world of work through academic study and hands-on experience.

Putting people first is a path to success for those who want to assist in the healing process, according to the faculty.

“The best nurses are those who care about their patients, not about making money, or just doing a job to get it done,” says Jessica L. Bower, nursing education simulation lab coordinator. “They need to ... put themselves in their patient’s shoes, or the patient bed, and think: How would they feel if they were lying there? How would they want to be treated?”

Tom A. Zimmerman, associate professor of psychology, agrees that caring is the most important quality when dealing with patients.

“If you’re going to work in health care, you have to be able to assume the role of the patient and understand what that person is going through,” he says. “Your goal is to be professional, to do a good job, and to make a difference. … It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about doing something meaningful that makes an impact and isn’t just about you.”

In the documentary, Zimmerman, who describes his service to the Lycoming County community after a group of local high-schoolers died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, insists that providing good care requires good listening skills.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself thinking I was listening, and I wasn’t,” he admits. “That’s tricky especially in social services, where the perception is you’re supposed to have answers, but … you can’t have an answer unless you understand the question. And if you jump too soon and start giving advice, I don’t think you’re going to be very effective.”

When offering career advice to students, he points to words of wisdom from the author of “The Power of Myth” – one of the most popular series in the history of public television.

“Joseph Campbell, who was a much revered writer, methodologist and cultural anthropologist, believed that the big goal in development and in choosing a career was to find your bliss,” Zimmerman says. “Do what you love, and love what you do. And I think that that’s good advice for anybody.”

Passion (or lack of passion) for what we do affects brain circuitry, according to Justin M. Ingram, assistant professor of biology, whose work experience includes researching brain function. 

“If I’m doing something that I’m not passionate about, … that circuit starts to get a little bit muddier, and it doesn’t work like it potentially could. Now I’m not performing at my full potential.”

Ingram says this also explains why average students who are highly motivated can survive the high academic rigors required in preparation for health care careers.

“It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about doing something meaningful that makes an impact and isn’t just about you.”

“You can see a student who might not be academically as strong, but they have that passion; they have that drive,” Ingram says. “They’ve found their niche; they know what it is, and that type of student is the student that’s going to succeed.”

Among the academic rigors that students interested in health care must face is the study of human anatomy.

“Science is the foundation in the health sciences,” Ingram explains. “Biology is the study of life. Chemistry is what your body is made up of and all the chemistries and all the drugs that affect that body. Physics is the study of motion. … Students don’t necessarily see that. They see ‘I want to help this person, … and that’s my passion; that’s my drive.’ But in order to do that, there’s a bigger back story, and that’s where all the science comes in.”

The “back story” of science is crucial in health care and in all 21st-century technology careers. Yet, there is concern among scientists that society’s commitment to teaching and learning science may be weakening.

Could science be lost?

Nursing instructor Tushanna M. Habalar (in white), leads students in inserting an IV into “SimMan,” an electronically controlled patient simulator.

Robert N. McCauley, author of “Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not,” believes that science is more fragile than most realize.

McCauley, a professor of philosophy, psychology, religion and anthropology at Emory University and the founding director of the university’s Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, adds, “Science is something really that’s out there quite at a distance from (most people), but they do understand, first and foremost, the spinoffs in two domains of life. One is in technologies … also in health care. Those are the two obvious places. And for most human beings, there’s a certain point in their life when these consequences of science turn out to be really important.”

McCauley was a speaker in Penn College’s Technology & Society Colloquia Series in 2017. He discussed the impact of living in a culture increasingly reliant on technology and the dissemination of information via images rather than the printed word. 

He believes that science “crucially depends upon a sound system of education throughout the society. Not everyone is going to be a scientist. Not everyone is going to be a technologist. But we don’t know who they are from the outset, and moreover, it seems to me in a democratic system, it’s vitally important that all of our citizens gain a solid education and become literate citizens.”

Penn College President Davie Jane Gilmour says science was her favorite subject. 

“In my public school education, when I look back over it, I loved science,” she says. “I loved biology, anatomy, chemistry. … Science was 100 percent me!”

The president, who started her career as a dental hygienist, says amazing advances in science and technology seen in her lifetime – such as organ transplants and robotic surgery – will continue to impact health care into the future.

“I think the biggest impact will be in solving the origins of some of our problems. It will be the technology-driven research that will help us identify what causes cancer, what causes some of the autoimmune diseases that we deal with today,” Gilmour says.

The technology advocate also likes the idea of one day being able to carry personal medical records with her wherever she goes. 

“Whether it’s in my wallet or under my skin. … That’s going to change the way we can save lives and take care of people,” she insists. 

Health information is a modern career path that offers many opportunities for individuals who would like to work in the health care system without being responsible for direct patient care. 

“Health information does save lives if we can rely on that information, and it’s readily available, and it’s accurate,” says Daniel K. Christopher, founding faculty member in the college’s health information technology program. “It definitely helps improve the quality of patient care to make sure that (health care providers) are making the best decisions for the patient’s life and treatment.”

John Kravitz, senior vice president and a chief information officer at Geisinger Health System, describes the importance of information technology in health care in the documentary. 

“We look at technology at Geisinger as, how do we assist a care provider, a physician, a nurse, a therapist? … How do we make their lives a little bit better by serving up information to them where they can use it for decision-making purposes? That’s what really our focus needs to be in information technology, because – think about this – we don’t exist without people. People are our lifeline.”

“Working Class: Helping & Healing” and other films in the award-winning series appear on WVIA-TV and other public television stations, as well as on YouTube and the http://workingclass.tv website.

Self-health is key to career satisfaction

“I was overstressed. … I wasn’t really being given work that truly challenged me,” said Pennsylvania College of Technology faculty member Summer L. Bukeavich. “That’s when I kind of felt things slipping, not only emotionally but physically, as well. I would come into work, and I would be tense right from the get-go.”

A personal experience Bukeavich had early in her career led her to pursue a better understanding of mindfulness in the workplace.

“If we’re not satisfied in our careers, we’re prone to problems – especially with mental health,” said the former marketing professional who is an assistant professor of business administration/management and marketing at Penn College.

“Our physiological response to anxiety is very well-intentioned. It worked well for us long ago, when we saw it like ‘that lion over there.’ We had to run to save our life. … But now we interpret something like a looming deadline as that same type of primitive threat, and so we have that primitive response,” she explained during an interview for “Working Class: Helping & Healing.”

“When we’re in the workplace and when we misinterpret those threats as being really primal, I think we’re prone to have these physiological reactions, which frankly don’t help us be good employees,” she added. “If we’re always coming to work stressed, and if we’re always coming to work with a racing heart and with tense muscles, how are we going to do our best work?”

Bukeavich encourages students to integrate mindfulness and other stress-reduction measures into their daily lives so they can be calmer and more present in their workplaces.

“I ask them to sit for just 30 seconds. I time it, and I say, ‘OK, get a piece of paper and a pen. Every time any thought comes into your head – it can be anything: ‘What am I going to eat for lunch?’ ‘Why are we doing this silly activity?’ – put a check mark on the piece of paper, and then at the end of the 30 seconds, see how many check marks you have.’ That is one of the best ways for a beginner to come to understand the idea of what it means to be present in the moment.”

Being present is especially important in careers focused on helping others heal.

“If you’ve got a patient who’s talking to you about what they’re feeling or what their problems are, instead of relying on whatever schema you might have in your head, mindfulness kind of helps you reach outside of the knowledge that you learned in the past and assess – fully assess – the present moment,” she explained.

Humans naturally seek patterns and look to past experiences to explain present situations, but Bukeavich cautions: “If we let our brain jump in early with the conclusion that we think is true, we might be making some very big mistakes because we’re neglecting to notice what’s actually there.”

She points to a wide variety of research that supports the positive effects of mindfulness in the workplace.

“It can help people retain more information,” she said. “It's been shown to increase job satisfaction, job engagement, creativity, job performance. … It reduces things like emotional exhaustion and stress, even accidents in the workplace, because when you practice paying attention to being in the present moment, you tend to be more cognizant of what's going on around you.”

Other Penn College faculty featured in “Working Class: Helping & Healing” spoke about the importance of health care professionals paying attention to their own health and well-being throughout their careers.

“What you do in your 50s determines your 60s. What you do in your 60s determines your 70s. What you do in your 70s determines your 80s. What you do in your 80s determines your 90s. Each decade will prepare you for what you're doing in the following decade,” said Tina M. Evans, associate professor of applied health studies.

She likes to remind students that, to be most effective, good habits should start early.

“That starts in your 20s, having that good foundation of transitioning from high school to college,” Evans said. “And keeping healthy habits, keeping the ability to exercise a couple times a week, and eat correctly, and avoid bad substances or things that we know are damaging to the body, like alcohol and cigarettes or street drugs. Having that confidence to live what you’re saying to patients makes all the difference in the world.”

- Elaine J. Lambert