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Title: Professor and Director of Nursing
Best Office Artifact: Chicago Table of Elements
Professor Frank Hicks knew he wanted to be a nurse since he was very young. Now, as head of the nursing program at Carthage, Professor Hicks draws on his past experiences and multiple positions in medical and surgical critical care to help his students understand the realities of what it really takes to be a nurse.
Chosen as an Illinois Board of Higher Education Nursing Education Fellow in 2014, Professor Hicks has taught at many colleges and universities in the midwest, and for more than 20 years he has been recognized repeatedly for his excellence as a teacher.
We spoke with Professor Hicks about the evolution of Carthage’s Nursing Program and what type of practical experience students can expect to receive during their time here.
How did you get into nursing?
I always wanted to be a nurse. When I was a young child, I developed spinal meningitis. In 1959, there was not a lot going on in terms of antibiotics and it could easily kill me. I was actually in a coma for five days and in strict isolation for two weeks. My mother couldn’t even come in to be with me, but I had this sense of a nurturing, caring presence all the time. I think that was the nurses. As I grew up, I had recurring bouts of tonsillitis and would go see the doctor. Of course, the doctor wasn’t there, so it was the office nurses who would actually take care of me. That inspired me to be a nurse.
How has your experience as a nurse affected your teaching at Carthage?
Nursing is a practice-based profession. For you to be an effective teacher, you must understand the practice of nursing. My background was critical care, in surgical ICUs, open-heart patients, craniotomies, big gut cases, those kinds of things. It’s very easy when you’re a critical care nurse to get embroiled with the technology because these patients are surrounded by machines. One of my early mentors taught me that the best way to assess the situation is to start with the patient on the bed. It always kept my focus on the patient even though we had all this high-tech equipment and were dealing with critically ill patients whose status could change minute-by-minute. That has led me to have a patient-centered focus and is something we have brought to Carthage.
How has the nursing program evolved since you have been here?
The nursing program is evolving as we speak. The first cohort will finish in May, so they have gone through the first round of the curriculum. But curriculums are living, breathing things; they’re very dynamic. It’s this thing that evolves with the experience of the faculty and the experience of the students. Our first graduates have been very intimately involved in helping us shape this curriculum. The second cohort has helped shape this curriculum even more.
As we look at our curricular outcomes, we have started to revise the curriculum. Starting with the fall freshman class, they will enter into a new curriculum that expands the clinical hours. We found that starting them in the second term of the sophomore year wasn’t getting them the kinds of experiences and was too much of a compressed format for them. We had to take that knowledge and spread that out over the semester. The program continues to evolve in a curricular fashion and evolved in terms of its admission and progression criteria.
What are some unexpected paths you have taken in your career?
When I was a nursing student, I thought I wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I wanted to deal with kids. I thought, “How cool would that be to have a male nurse dealing with kids?” because that wasn’t something you saw a lot. All through school, I thought that was what I wanted to be, so I focused as many experiences as I could on the pediatric population. We had a rotation called Advanced Nursing when we were seniors, which was a concentrated clinical time in an area of your choice that you thought you wanted to practice in. I was assigned to the Intensive Care Unit in Riley Children’s Hospital — and I hated it. It was not the right environment for me. It was difficult not only to see the kids so sick but also to see what it was doing to the family. I was very devastated at that point because in my mind I put up this persona of what I was going to be and that wasn’t going to work anymore. It was actually one of the faculty members supervising that clinical who had a long talk with me because I was on the verge of quitting one semester away from graduation. She made me see that nursing offers so many opportunities and so many other choices, and just because you try something once and didn’t like it, doesn’t mean there isn’t something out there waiting for you.
My first job out of school was in Rush University Medical Center on a pre-post op cardiovascular floor. That is how I got into adult nursing and I moved into intensive care, dealing with primarily adults and cardiovascular patients. I went with where I felt there was a fit. I learned not to box myself in and not to impose expectations upon myself. I always knew I wanted to be a nurse, and when I went to Indiana University, I wanted to teach. Those were the two goals I had and everything else fell into place around them.
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“… just because you try something once and didn’t like it, doesn’t mean there isn’t something out there waiting for you.”
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Nursing can be intense. How do you prepare students for that in a safe environment?
They have actual clinical experiences and deal with patients by the time they are sophomores. That’s a little bit protected because they always have a clinical instructor there and they never practice independently. They always have a safety net to fall back on.
Another thing we use is simulation, because we can simulate very intense experiences that they may not even get in the clinical area. The clinical area is very random in terms of the kinds of experiences that the students have. In the simulation center, we can structure an emergency situation and have the students perform in that. The teaching and learning of that experience occurs after the simulation when we review. We videotape it and play it back to the students as we talk through it. This was not something I had when I was in nursing school. We went through clinical and were thrown out on the unit and expected to perform. We know novice nurses can’t do it and the simulation center has really helped us be able to prepare the students for real-life kinds of scenarios.
The fact of the matter is that there is not a nursing program in the world that will produce a finished product. No nursing student when they graduate is a finished product; that first year is really the definitive year. It is when they take the knowledge they learned in school and apply it to diverse practice contexts. What we try to do here is give them a taste of what’s coming down the pike, so they don’t get the shock that nurses of my generation got when they go out of school.
What are some hobbies or talents that students may not think you have?
I am actually a very good cook and I like to garden. My students know I am a dog lover, but cooking and gardening are two things they may not suspect of me.
What advice do you have for students interested in or entering the nursing program?
They have to come into this with eyes wide open. I encourage students to spend time with nurses. Spend time with all sorts of nurses. Spend time with staff nurses, outpatient nurses, advanced practice nurses. See the varied roles that nurses have across the healthcare system because it is quite varied. You have to understand what the practice of nursing is and what it is going to require of you.
The other thing is to be realistic about what this major would be if you choose to come to any school of nursing. I think nursing is one of the most difficult undergraduate majors, not only because of the density of the content, but we keep them very busy. Our nursing students are in lecture two days a week. They’re in clinical 12 hours a week. They have labs and simulations, and there are tons of reading and homework. One class or another is going to have an exam, so they are having exams or quizzes nearly every week.
You have to come into this understanding the workload and what is going to be expected of you. To be successful in this, you have to do two things: You have to dedicate yourself to the material and you have to have time management. We tell students that they have to write out a calendar week by week. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to fall behind. When things come fast and furious in the curriculum, if you start to fall behind, it is almost impossible to keep up. That is usually what causes students to have difficulty in this program. Be aware of what this curriculum is going to demand of you, manage your time very well, and realize that the workload is going to be heavy.
— Interview by William Dowell ’22; Photography by Jenna Link ’22