Once failing high school, nurse practitioner now champions health care equity, diversity
Whitney Fear, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Family HealthCare in Fargo, is the subject of a documentary film aimed at inspiring nurses.
FARGO — Whitney Fear overheard a judgmental conversation among her nursing colleagues in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) that she couldn’t let pass.
Her fellow nurses were discussing an infant that was going to be brought into the unit from White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. One of the nurses dismissively said the child probably suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
“I just spun around and told them you have no idea what it’s like to grow up there,” she said.
Fear, now a psychiatric nurse practitioner, knows very well what it’s like to grow up on a reservation, where entrenched poverty and lack of opportunities are stubborn facts of life. She’s an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and grew up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Experiences like the conversation in the NICU have convinced Fear that the nursing profession is in need of greater diversity. She believes the greater the awareness that comes from health professionals from diverse backgrounds, the more comprehensive care the profession can provide to patients.
“There’s really a need for this,” said Fear, who works at Family HealthCare’s clinic in downtown Fargo. There are only 12 American Indian nurses with doctoral degrees in the United States, and 0.8% of nurses are Native American.
Yet American Indians suffer from much higher rates of disease, including diabetes, heart disease and alcoholism, than the population at large.
Fear, who began speaking out about the need for greater diversity in health care, is featured in a documentary film, “ Who Cares: A Nurse’s Fight for Equity ,” which will be shown to an audience of nurses and nursing students at a special screening at the Fargo Theatre.
She hopes the film, which was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will help open peoples’ eyes. It includes frank discussions between Fear and her colleagues — one of whom jokingly says Fear “talks like a sailor” — and includes comments from her appreciative patients, including a formerly homeless Native man who struggles with addiction.
Fear rose through the ranks, starting as a licensed practical nurse, then worked as a registered nurse before becoming a nurse practitioner.
She found herself drawn to mental health and psychiatric nursing, and also enjoys working with the diverse community of patients at Family HealthCare, a federally qualified health center.
Now with a dozen years of nursing experience, Fear said, “I’ve been working with mentally ill people since I was born.”
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Fear’s grades were so low in high school that she thought she’d dug herself an academic hole she couldn’t escape.
“I kind of hit a wall in high school,” she said.
Her grades sank as she became apathetic about her schoolwork driven by a deep pessimism.
She watched as her father never seemed to get ahead despite years of hard work, including jobs off the family’s cattle ranch to pay the bills.
“Many times it was by the skin of his teeth to keep going another year,” she said. “He was exhausted all the time. What is even the point of working so hard? You can work hard your whole life and still not have anything.”
Discouraged, Fear fell into a period of alcohol abuse.
“I was an adolescent alcoholic,” she said, adding that she also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It felt good to not feel anything. The poverty is so substantial down there.”
But then a high school counselor, who recognized her intelligence and saw potential, managed to alter Fear’s fatalistic attitude and help her find a sense of purpose in life.
“He was just very blunt about it,” she said. At the time, she was supposed to be a high school junior, but only had enough credits to be a sophomore. “I didn’t know how to fix it,” Fear said.
The counselor got her into an early-entry program at the tribal college, Oglala Lakota College, where she took classes two nights a week while also taking her high school courses.
“I basically made myself as busy as possible so I wouldn’t get lazy and give up again,” she said.
Encouragement from her teachers boosted her confidence and she participated in a science competition. Inspiration also came from her family, especially her father, who is a role model.
“My family was pretty fortunate in many ways,” she said. “We had electricity and running water. We had plenty to eat.”
She started her nursing education at a technical college, then attended North Dakota State University before earning a masters of science degree in nursing at Maryville University in St. Louis. Her clinical interests include disorders stemming from trauma or stressors, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, personality disorders and substance use disorders.
Early in her nursing career, much of her exposure to mental health cases came in contacts she had with patients in the emergency room.
Her own early experiences with mental illness and growing up in rural poverty help her relate to patients. She’s also a mother of 9-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
“I’m not in that place anymore and haven’t been for a long time,” but that dark chapter in her life gives her insight into her patients’ illnesses.
To treat her patients, Fear has learned to pick up clues from their body language while drawing them out by confiding in her own struggles.
She’s learned “the power of truly listening to people.”
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A panel discussion will follow the invitation-only special screening of the documentary “Who Cares: A Nurse’s Fight for Equity” at the Fargo Theatre.
Participants will discuss health equity, how nurses can best provide individualized care and incorporate acts of health justice into their practice, and reshaping the narrative of nursing. They’ll conclude with a discussion of inspiring the next generation of nurses.
Whitney Fear’s story shows how nurses can help to achieve health justice for their patients, said Beth Toner, a nurse and spokeswoman for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“We really believe that nurses can — they already do — play a role in health equity,” she said. Nurses are vital links because they are centrally involved in direct patient care. “They have the most contact with people wherever they work — hospitals, community clinics, schools.”
Fear’s story, and her example in overcoming hardships in her life, also can inspire other nurses, Toner said. “In some ways it’s reminding nurses why they got into nursing in the first place,” she said. “We wanted health-care professionals and the public alike to see representation in the health professions. The nursing profession needs to be more diverse.”
How to watch:
You can stream the documentary, "Who Cares: A Nurse's Fight for Equity," online here .
The film, by SHIFT Productions and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, features Whitney Fear, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Family HealthCare in Fargo.