Lea Ann VanBuskirk was 38 when she went back to school to become a nurse. Now, with a master’s degree in nursing education under her belt and a doctoral dissertation almost complete, she joins the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) faculty as the healthcare program director for Lancaster’s RN to BSN program.
“I don’t think we have one student in our program right now that isn’t working and juggling a family,” VanBuskirk said. It’s a challenge she’s intimately familiar with – her four children were still young when she started nursing school. The oldest was 10. “It was frightening,” she said.
This experience gives her a particular passion for educating nurses with families of their own.
“I am here to help them however I can,” she said. “When you decide to go back to school, you’re not doing this to your family. You’re doing this for your family.”
She earned her associate’s degree in 2006, her bachelor’s in nursing in 2009, and her master’s in nursing education in 2011. Only then did she take a few years’ break before enrolling in Grand Canyon University’s doctoral program for general psychology with an emphasis on cognition and instruction.
VanBuskirk is currently a nursing supervisor at a small community hospital in the WellSpan Health network in Lancaster County – a position she will retain while at EMU Lancaster. She does get to interact with families, which she loves, but the job also stretches her in many roles, including “staffing, patient care, doctor needs, family needs, coordinating things with the county when there’s an emergency, fixing toilets,” VanBuskirk said with a laugh.
Mary Jensen, associate provost at EMU Lancaster, said VanBuskirk brings several notable attributes to the faculty.
“First of all, she demonstrates her commitment to students and the student learning experience by meeting students where they are and valuing the contribution they make to our learning community,” said Jensen. “And, LeaAnn has a riotous sense of humor. She makes us laugh and we all need that right now!”
VanBuskirk’s first nursing position was in cardiac telemetry ICU stepdown – serving patients with heart problems and other compounding issues, for example, someone who’s just had bypass surgery who also has diabetes.
It was an “initiation by fire,” VanBuskirk said, but that hospital setting “was the best to develop my nursing skills and provided the best advantage for me to become an educator.”
She also discovered one of her callings as a nurse: geriatric patients.
“People at the end of their life are the most vulnerable, and they just need a different kind of care. They need a lot more emotional care,” VanBuskirk explained. “For the most part they’re very sweet. They just need people to love them. There are a lot of old people that have families, but there are even more that don’t, and I just love them.”
VanBuskirk said nurses need that depth of care for patients to remain in such a demanding field. As she put it, “there’s no amount of money that can cover holding someone in your arms while they’re dying. You can’t put a dollar amount on that.”
Thankfully, her area hasn’t been hit overly hard by COVID-19. But several of her staff at WellSpan have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic – thankfully, all of them have recovered well.
“I just can’t say enough about our nurses and their bravery,” VanBuskirk said.