Carmen Zych has dedicated much of her life stressing the tender, loving care aspect of nursing.
Whether she is teaching the next generation of care givers as an associate professor of nursing at Parkland College, serving as a hospice nurse practitioner for Presence Covenant Medical Center or volunteering as a nurse practitioner for the Champaign County Christian Health Center, Zych stresses alleviating suffering and treating people with dignity.
Area residents have been impressed with Zych's volunteer work at the health center, which was organized by some parishioners at the New Covenant Church in Champaign, which she attends.
She has spent countless hours since 2004 at the center providing medical help, along with loving care, for people in need who have slipped through the cracks in the healthcare system.
Zych will be recognized for her humanitarian efforts as the winner of this year's James R. Burgess, Jr.- Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
Zych, 62, and her husband, Chet Zych (a retiree from the College of Education at the UI), have three children: David Zych, Maria Wilson and Veronica Tucker.
Zych talks about the work of the Champaign County Christian Health Center, the role nurses have in providing care with dignity and how she was inspired by Dr. King.
Q: What was your reaction when you were told you were going to get this award?
A: I was completely surprised. I was very humbled because I know there are so many people in this community who need so many things. To be singled out is very humbling.
Q: Have your friends gotten excited about the award?
A: Yes, they have.
Q: Could you explain what the Champaign County Christian Health Center is?
A: The Christian Health Center is for people who have no health care. It is a clinic that serves people without insurance. It is completely free. We are limited in what we can do because we don't have a lot of funds or a lot of equipment. But we can provide basic medical care. We see every individual who comes to us as being worthy of care with dignity. It is primary care, so they go through triage, they see a social worker if there are social needs, and there are providers, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and a discharge nurse available to meet their needs.
Senior citizens typically have Medicare, so they usually have access to the health care system. Oftentimes the people we serve are working people. With the downturn in the economy, sometimes people have lost their jobs. We see a lot of people who are working two different jobs and still don't have health insurance.
Q: What do you do at the health center?
A: Sometimes I see patients directly. Sometimes I help with discharge nursing. Sometimes I review labs. Sometimes I troubleshoot whatever is going on that night. We have people who need to go to the emergency room because they are so sick and have delayed going to the emergency room because they have no money and no insurance.
Q: What got you interested in nursing?
A: I wanted to help people. As I was growing up in Chicago, my mother had a lot of health problems. I was inspired by some of the nurses who were taking care of her. I wanted to be able to give something back to others after having a family member with health problems, so I decided to become a nurse.
Q: As an instructor, do you teach about alleviating suffering?
A: I feel that one of the reasons I have been given this opportunity at Parkland is to be able to teach about alleviating suffering. I think those things are so very important. Patients don't just remember what the diagnosis was. They remember how they were cared for. They remember the attitudes of their care givers. Were they treated with dignity? Did their care givers understand their ethnic backgrounds or other cultural needs?
Learning to be a nurse is much more than getting the IV in or getting the catheter in.
Q: Can you give some examples of how nurses can alleviate suffering or show dignity to others?
A: A nurse needs to make sure as much as possible that the patient is in control of the situation, whether that is treatment decisions, making sure their pain is managed or making sure their shortness of breath is managed. A nurse needs to go to the patient as much as possible to explain the choices they can make. A nurse should educate them in those choices and support the choices that they make. Some patients feel helpless, and we would like to empower them as much as possible.
Part of showing dignity is simple human things. Communication with patients includes eye contact, taking the time to be with patients and hearing what they have to say. I think people's presence can be therapeutic. It is also important to provide time and space to a patient and/or the family so they have the opportunity to communicate what is important to them.
Q: Given your experience working with hospice, what are some examples of good care giving for the end of life?
A: A good care giver is someone who is patient and kind and knowledgeable. It is important to know what to do. A good care giver is willing to spend the time with a patient. A good care giver is supportive and strong, someone who allows others to lean on them for a time if they need to do that. Care givers also need to take care of themselves. We see a lot of care givers in families who themselves become sick in the act of care giving.
Q: Who are your heroes in the world of nursing?
A: My nursing heroes are Dr. Joanne Huff and JoAnn McGrain. They both taught me. My basic nursing education was here at Parkland College. They were both nursing instructors, and I graduated here in 1975. They are both retired now, but they both do a lot of work in the area in parish nursing. They have been very supportive of Parkland and its students.
Q: How has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired you?
A: His selflessness, his willing to care for people and his willingness to stand up for what is right have inspired me. Clearly, those are the qualities that are most important in life.
Q: Are there specific ways in which the Champaign-Urbana community has made progress in promoting human dignity?
A: I don't know. I hope so, but I kinda work in my own little microcosm of the community.
Q What are some things you would like to see happen to improve human dignity over the next 10 years?
A: I would like to see everybody truly have access to health care. I believe in quality health care for everybody. I would also like to see access to education and employment for everybody because I believe that people generally are willing to work hard. Given the opportunity, they will do that and be able to help others as well.