Nursing News

Nurse's Cross-Country Marathon Encourages Colleagues to Embrace the Healthy Life

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By Kim McCarten, contributor

October 8, 2010 - Helene Neville, RN, 50, has led an amazing life. This registered nurse has survived cancer and three life-threatening brain surgeries to become a leading voice encouraging colleagues to fully embrace a healthy lifestyle.

Helene Neville, RN
Helene Neville, RN, 50, is dedicated to helping nurses live healthier lives.

In August, Neville completed a cross-country marathon as a way of bringing more attention to the importance of healthy living for nurses, running from San Diego, Calif., to Jacksonville, Fla., in just 93 days. She is believed to be the first person to complete the transcontinental southern route during the hot, humid conditions of summer.

Along the 2,520-mile route, she met with nurses to help them begin or improve their approach to fitness, health and nutrition.  She also raised money, in her mother's name, for a struggling elementary school in Philadelphia.

Neville's professional experience includes working in hospitals and nursing homes, and doing work for the U.S. Department of Defense, FEMA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She has combined her professional and personal experiences to develop health and fitness programs and tips for other nurses.

Neville spent some time talking with NurseZone about what she's learned--and what others might learn from her.

Q. What are some of the special nutrition/health concerns for nurses and why are you reaching out to colleagues about this?

A. I think a lot of the concerns center around stress; [staying healthy] while dealing with overwork, underpay, nurse-to-patient ratios, etc.

But my message is really to inspire nurses to take care of themselves and become an even better caregiver.

We need to lead by example. If there's a health message we're trying to [deliver] to our patients, former patients, or just the general public, then we should really look the part.

Helene Neville, RN
Helene Neville, RN, ends her solo, 2,520-mile cross-country marathon in Jacksonville, Fla., joined by supporters and members of the Donna Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer.

I don't mean a size two; I mean healthy habits, healthy living. For example, I don't think it's a good idea to smoke in front of the hospital on a break or smell like nicotine when you're caring for a patient.

Q. More of a “practice what you preach” kind of thing?

A. Absolutely. It’s our credibility.

For example, there are so many more Type II diabetics, it's growing at such an alarming rate. The education that we give those patients is centered around nutrition and activity level and it's pretty clear that some of the health professionals giving out that information do not practice what they're [telling] patients to practice.

Q. Do you think it's part of the caregiver stereotype perhaps, giving too much to others and not taking care of yourself?  Or is it being part of a bigger, unhealthy culture?

A. Nursing is a nurturing profession, but I don't know how much nurturing is getting done because everyone is so overwhelmed trying to complete their required assignments.

But too often, there's a toxic work environment: for instance, why are there vending machines with candy and soda in facilities that preach healthy eating habits and healthy nutrition?

Q. How are nurses impacted by their work environment, from a healthy-habit standpoint?

A. Some nurses have “donut day” or “buffet day” … It would be so great if a health establishment actually looked like one… [instead] every single hallway has a candy machine or there's a McDonald's.

You work in that environment and it's a constant temptation. Nurses are prone to grab something quick, and think “I don't have time to sit and eat”... It's a grab-and-go kind of thing with meals and food. Those choices are typically not very healthy. Compound that with the hours, sometimes being underappreciated, disempowered … it all creates an environment that's unhealthy.

Besides being overwhelmed by the workload and an unhealthy work environment, nursing is also a pretty labor-intensive job that requires a lot [of physical stamina]…And because you seem to always be pressed for time, sometimes nurses don't pay enough attention to proper body mechanics in lifting or turning a patient, for example….In fact, nursing as a profession ranks number one for back injuries.

Q. That sounds like nurses need to be better prepared, physically. In addition to your many other projects, you're doing personal training. What are some of nurses’ top concerns?

A. Prior to my run across the country, I was on the floor nursing and doing my public health work, and nurses would come up to me and ask, “How do I get 'Madonna arms'?” or “How do I get six-pack abs?” They'd never ask for any medical advice.

[Although nurses] all learn about the science of physics, and nutrition and movement in school… mostly, they don't know where to start.

The nurses' mindset, like it is for a lot of people, is “What's quick and easy? What will work fast?” They think they'll run a 5K or a marathon, and they have the finish in their head.

But like a nursing care plan, those big goals need to be broken down into baby steps that are easier to achieve. The hardest part, the step that takes the most courage, is getting to the starting line: whether it's the day you buy your first running shoes or the day you start your program.

You have to make a genuine commitment ... and you just have to be patient, which is very hard for a nurse! The rest will come.

My book [Nurses in Shape] takes nurses through the basics: nutrition, fitness, time management, sleep. It's a step-by-step recipe for health.

Q. Any stand-out successes from the people you're worked with?

A. On my cross-country trek, I stopped at 30 hospitals after each day's run to talk and meet with people, and [one stop] was in Weimar, a tiny town in Texas…

The nurses had heard about what I was doing, they came out to take a photo, and they all made a commitment right then and there to help each other incorporate more healthy habits.

I get emails from that group now. They're up to 14 miles a week for their longest run. One of them wrote a personal story [about her fitness successes] and posted it on my Facebook page. It was great.

Q. Well, you have credibility as a nursing colleague. You came back from cancer and brain surgeries, and you're living it. It's inspiring.

A. I knew it would have a [bigger impact] if I showed up and talked with people face-to-face.

I had some amazing welcomes during my run. In San Antonio, they gave me a police escort and blocked traffic for my run through town! People made signs and stood along the route because they read online about how others couldn't be there; these nurses felt they needed to represent those colleagues.

Q. What did you think about on your run---and did anything surprise you about the experience?

A. At the beginning, I was going through New Mexico and Texas. It was so hot, my phone would die, my tunes would go out ...  but I'd never be too far from thinking about any nurse, in any discipline, who was out there, right then, on their feet taking care of people. And it would keep me going. I thought if they were doing it, I could [keep] doing it.

And the Facebook/social media fan page was a way to connect everyone and create a community. People were inspired by what others wrote, and I knew at that point I couldn't quit because there were all these people I didn't even know who were involved now.

There were people at the finish line [in Florida] who had tracked the run on Facebook. One woman called herself my 'Facebook stalker' and gave me a donation [for the elementary school in Philadelphia].

Q. What advice do you have for colleagues? Is it “Get started?”

A. Yes. You've got to show up; you can never fail if you don't quit. I don't think nurses are really about quitting anyway; we don't quit!

What we [nurses] do really does inspire others. People trust our profession, people need to see us doing the right things. The whole health care thing is a trickle-down system. Many nurses have, unfortunately, become a product of an unhealthy health care system.

Q. But by becoming aware, you start to see where the problems are ...

A. And that's the start of the change.

For more information visit Neville’s One on the Run race web site, and learn more about her book.


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