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Profile: Geraldine Gorman helps nursing students find their voice

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Geraldine Gorman
Geraldine Gorman asks her students to write about the times others cared for them. “This closes the chasm between themselves as student nurses and the individuals they deal with as patients.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

The fact that she used to be an English teacher isn’t the only reason Geraldine Gorman has her nursing students read a lot of poetry and literature.

The legendary Florence Nightingale would understand.

“She said nursing is a science and an art, an art you bring your whole person and your whole talent to,” Gorman said.

Nursing education sometimes lacks the insights into psychology and spirituality that Gorman, clinical assistant professor of health systems science, feels are needed.

Memoirs are high on her reading list. At the Will of the Body, by Canadian sociologist Arthur Frank, “deals with the existential meaning of his illness [testicular cancer] for himself and his wife,” Gorman said.

Citing a chapter on pain, she said, “Pain is incoherent. This is a very important concept for students to understand. They won’t get it from a textbook.”

Frank also wrote about the illnesses of others, including comedian Gilda Radner’s battle with ovarian cancer, in The Wounded Storyteller.

Another memoir Gorman prescribes is Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy, who had to deal with disfigurement after losing one-third of her jaw to cancer.

Gorman also focuses on social justice as the basis for the tradition of public health nursing.

“Feisty social activists — for suffrage, immigrant rights, ending the injustice of poverty — saw these as mandates of public health nursing. We’ve lost that,” she said.

“I expose students to writing that speaks to social justice in a more gutsy, in-your-face way than they get in a textbook. It’s a way of helping them find their own voice to make them better advocates for their patients.”

Gorman’s students must be writers as well as readers.

“It gets them in touch with their own feelings, their own bodily sensations, as they move into this very stressful profession,” she said.

She asks them to write from their own experience, especially moments when they felt well cared for.

“This closes the chasm between themselves as student nurses and the individuals they deal with as patients,” Gorman said.

As you can see in anthologies of poetry written by nurses, they often have difficulty with personal narratives and the active voice.

“They’re more comfortable couching it in allegory,” she said. “But they’re better off using their own first-person voice, recognizing the importance and validity of their own intuitive knowledge and affective responses.”

Over the summer, Gorman taught a course that culminated in each student’s creation of a “performance text” — a vehicle developed by Norman Denzin, sociology professor at Urbana-Champaign.

The object is to move listeners to action. At a reading by her students, one spoke about overcoming his sense of homophobia. Another told how attending a funeral affected her priorities as a doctoral student. A third, who hosted international students, expressed her shame about the U.S. health care system.

The performance “had authenticity and integrity,” Gorman said. “The audience was very moved.”

Gorman grew up on the North Side and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Loyola University Chicago.

She taught English there for three years. But many of her students were in premed, “and they were not interested in how to write nice, esthetically crafted compositions,” she said.

“They were interested in biology and getting into medical school.”

Leaving Loyola, she worked in social services in Chicago and Arizona for 10 years before coming to UIC.

A resident of East Rogers Park, Gorman has three children: Grace, 23, a sociology major at UIC; Gabriel, 21, studying criminal justice at the University of Iowa; and Moira, 17, a senior at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

She not only teaches nursing but practices the healing art as a hospice nurse.

“I wanted professional sanction to use my hands,” Gorman said. “I had the desire to offer comfort through touch.”

In hospice she encounters a condition called terminal agitation, which afflicts about half of patients in the last 24 to 48 hours of life. They may try to remove their clothing or climb out of bed, risking a fall.

In what Gorman calls a “Faustian bargain,” all that can be done is to medicate these patients. This destroys the lucidity of their last interactions with family members.

Gorman is experimenting with shiatsu, a combination of massage and acupressure.

“I hope that with skilled touch, we can cut down on the amount of sedation,” she said.


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