The boy who changed my life
As a sophomore at JHU, double majoring in English and Italian, I took a job helping care for Nathaniel, a six-year-old boy with special needs. I was a devoted humanities student, but also wanted to help people. I had a hunch that I wanted to be a nurse.
Every weekday morning, I arrived at Nathaniel’s home at 6:30 a.m. to help him get ready for school—giving him water and medications through a tube in his tummy, helping him dress and eat, and waiting with him for the school bus. During our routine, I tried to give him space to be independent and be himself, and would report to his mom with delight new words or skills he mastered.
Becoming a part of Nathaniel’s household was a joy. But, even with his sunny disposition, goofy smile, and wild laugh, Nathaniel’s needs could be quite intense, and I marveled at how his family met these needs with grace and love. I learned that it really takes a team of people, such as friends, nurses, teachers, and neighbors, to help a family rise to the challenges a child with special needs can present. As I became a part of Nathaniel’s world, I realized how difficult life must be for families and children without that network.
Mornings with Nathaniel became my favorite part of each day and inspired me to follow my gut. I enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing’s traditional bachelor’s program and after one semester was accepted into the Research Honors Program, which matches undergraduates with a faculty mentor to learn about nursing research and complete a research project. I was paired with Deborah Gross, DNSc, RN, professor and Stulman Endowed Chair in Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing.
Working with her and Joyce Harrison, MD, director of The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Early Childhood/Preschool Clinic, I helped coordinate a pilot study to examine Dr. Gross’s parent-training program, the Chicago Parent Program, as a treatment for families with children who have a diagnosed mental illness or behavior disorder.
Dr. Harrison and I facilitate the group, using videos and activities to teach parenting principles and tools to help parents manage their children’s behavior while building a strong, positive relationship with their child. The parents also teach one another, problem-solving together and offering ideas and support. I’ve been amazed to witness the changes in parents—the open smiles, changes of voice—as they become more adept at helping their children.
It’s now my second year of nursing school, and sixth year working with Nathaniel and his family. The experience continues to be a touchstone for my perspective on nursing and child mental health.
I’m glad I found a path that helps families help their children. And, I’ve learned one of the pleasures of working in community health—that the difference we can make in the life of a child is also a difference we can make in the life of a family, a community, and a city.