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Judith Westphal

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UW Oshkosh assistant professor Judy Westphal credits a summer spent caring for an elderly woman as the impetus that pushed her into the health care field. “I wanted to be an archaeologist,” Westphal says.

by Noell Dickmann
Student Multimedia Reporter

nursing a dream

UW Oshkosh assistant professor Judy Westphal credits a summer spent caring for an elderly woman as the impetus that pushed her into the health care field. “I wanted to be an archaeologist,” says Westphal, who grew up on a small farm in New Franken, Wis., a rural town outside of Green Bay that boasts of a lone stop sign and two bars.
As the oldest of nine children, Westphal dreamed of going places beyond the boundaries of her parents’ 50-cow dairy farm. Thus, the dream of archaeological adventures in faraway places. However, the summer when Westphal was 13, she was offered a job “babysitting” a 90-year-old woman. “I thought it sounded better than staying home, milking cows and baling hay,” she says.
Five days a week, Westphal biked 3 miles to Mrs. Becker’s home by 8:30 a.m. Then she’d make breakfast, bathe and dress the nonageneraian, do light housekeeping and laundry, and make lunch. As part of her care-giving duties, the teen also learned to play Canasta, and learned to play the card game well enough to lose with skill and grace. Before Westphal left at 
4:30 p.m., she’d make dinner and then bike back home.
“I did this for one summer and my pay for that wonderful position was $3 a day,” says Westphal with a chuckle. “I thought I was quite wealthy making $15 a week.” Westphal paused, looking away. “I owe that family so much more because it really launched my career into health care and, eventually, nursing.”

Dr. Judith Westphal lecturing to students in class.

Back to School

Westphal has taught in the College of Nursing at UW Oshkosh since 2008, after spending more than 25 years in the health care industry as a nurse, a nurse administrator and a hospital executive. After her initial foray into elderly care, she abandoned her archaeological dreams and dove into nursing because she liked the hands-on aspect of the job. “With nursing you could get closest to the patients, and you could maintain that contact for a longer period of time,” she says.

Nurses, she says, play a crucial role in a patient’s life. “When I talk to my patients, the difference was the nurse,” she says. “That’s who made the difference in their care. That’s who was with them in the middle of the night, in the afternoon, early in the morning.”
Westphal received her nursing license from Mercy Medical Center School of Nursing in Oshkosh, then her bachelor’s of nursing from UW Oshkosh in 1983. After taking a semester off from school, she started the master’s degree program at the University. There, she helped obtain official status for the Eta Pi Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau, the nursing national honor society, for which she served as its first president. She did this while working full time as a nurse on the medical unit at Mercy. As a busy married mother of an infant son, Westphal resolutely took one class per semester until she earned her master’s degree in 1990.

Teaching on the Job

After three years of working at Mercy, she was asked to assist with an orientation of new nurses. Westphal credits this as the start of her role as a teacher. “When I started working with those new hires, that truly was my entrance into teaching. It was one-on-one small little groups but I enjoyed that immensely,” she says. “That brought me the most joy and satisfaction.”

In this podcast, Dr. Judith Westphal discusses the role of nurses and their importance in the health care field. Produced by Noell Dickmann.
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A year later, she became head nurse of the medical unit. While she had enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with the novice nurses she felt a need to do more. She decided to go back to school. As she pursued her doctoral degree at UW Madison she continued to work full time.

However, she found it difficult to navigate between the two worlds of student and hospital administrator. Westphal, at that time, was a vice president for Affinity Health System, where many of her colleagues didn’t understand her desire to return to school. (Her two children, Collin and Darice, were already grown, and she and her husband, Daniel, have settled comfortably in Oshkosh.) “These were really two disparate worlds,” she says of her professional life and her student life. “It became clear to me that I was not going to stay in management and leadership indefinitely, and that I was going to be moving into education.”

She did indeed make the shift into education. Westphal finished her doctoral degree in 2008 and obtained a position teaching at UW Oshkosh that same year.

Teaching to Care

As far as the classroom goes, she wants her students to be able to learn from her as well as she learn from them. “When I work with students in my classroom one of the first things I try to establish is respect, my respect for them and their respect for me. I have knowledge about certain things. I have experience in certain areas, but they have knowledge and experience in areas that I am not familiar with so we can learn from each other.”
Former student Emily Weiss, who earned her master’s degree at UW Oshkosh in 2011, is a big Westphal fan. Weiss, who is a family nurse practitioner in Portage, Wis., took several classes from Westphal including Research in Nursing and Health Care Policies and Procedures. “I use Judy’s knowledge she taught me every day,” Weiss says. “I honestly don’t know if I would be where I am today without Judy Westphal.”
In addition to teaching, Westphal keeps busy with her research. She is currently doing research using a national sample survey of registered nurses, nurse leaders and nurse educators. She is most interested in succession planning and management, which ties back to her early supervisory experiences. “It’s descriptive research,” she explains. “What does this population [of professionals] look like? Are they young, are they middle-aged? What’s changing with this population over time? I think we need to understand what is happening with the group over time so we can understand where they’re going.”

Joys and Heartbreaks

Westphal no longer does the one-on-one patient care, but she plays a big part in growing a new crop of health care givers. “In health care nurses are the linchpin,” she says. “Without nurses I think our health care system would really crumble because they connect things together.”
With a growing, aging population, nurses are needed more than ever, Westphal says. “The health care system is complex, it’s cumbersome, it’s convoluted, and you need someone to help you sort through that,” Westphal says. “Nurses are the only health professionals that function as an advocate for the patient, and patients need advocates at times.”

Research: Dr. Judith Westphal, a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Scholar, shows her findings on a pilot study at the Provost's Teaching and Learning Summit.

Westphal does not glorify nursing to prospective students. She tells them it’s a tough job, not for the faint-of-heart. “It will require a lot of hard work to successfully navigate through a nursing program, but...” she says with a big smile, “the rewards are endless and stay with you for a lifetime.”
For Westphal, she still remembers certain patients who have left an indelible mark in her life. One patient, a young mother who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in the 1980s, was one such person. “Many times, as nurses, you can help an individual successfully navigate the illness or disease,” she says. “They might come in with a broken limb. We set the limb and pretty soon they can walk on crutches and they are able to go home.”
But this case was different. The woman, who was about the same age as the nurses, didn’t have much time to live. “It was in the 1980s, and we didn’t understand what HIV was at the time,” Westphal says, her eyes welling with tears. During her final two months, the woman stayed in isolation at the hospital. But Westphal and the other nurses made sure that she had quality time with her husband and kids. After the woman died, the grief-stricken husband thanked her and the other nurses. “I had not gone to a lot of funerals of patients. That one I did attend,” she says. “We got back more than we gave.”
Despite the tragic outcome in that case, Westphal was reminded of why nurses do what they do. “The pure honesty of that feedback with patients and their families at moments of crisis really is what drives most nurses to keep going and do it day in and day out,” she says. “That’s the positive kind of reward.”

In this podcast, Dr. Judith Westphal talks about caring for an elderly neighbor, an experience that sparked her interest in a nursing career. Produced by Amy Wasnidge.
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Making a Difference

Westphal may not have seen the world from the eyes of an archaeologist, but her reach as a nurse educator knows no boundaries. She knows what she is doing matters. “In my small sphere of influence, I can make a difference for individuals,” she says. “It may be a difference that I realize, it may be a difference I had no idea I touched or influenced. Perhaps all of us as we journey through life are influencing in ways we do not understand at all.”

She pauses. “I know that it’s my job, my purpose to keep doing what I’m doing right now and I know my work is not done yet.”

Student reporter Amy Wasnidge also contributed to this report.

Research Matters

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