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Calming Trauma: Finding Strength in a Nursing Career

Sarah Westholm
June 16, 2016

Alumna Sarah (Zapp) Westholm 

The medical surgery ward is full of patients under great stress.

It's also the place where Sarah (Zapp) Westholm, 2014 alumna, was working when she realized she wanted to switch her specialization.

One day, a patient kept saying she couldn’t breathe. First one nurse, then another, came in. They each looked at vital signs, explained they looked good, tried to reassure the patient, and left. 

Then Sarah entered the room. The patient talked about a great crush on her chest. “I knew immediately what was going on,” Sarah says. “I could see the patient was going through what I had experienced several times before, a panic attack.” 

The patient’s oxygen level and her heart rate were perfect, and yet her anxiety was palpable.  

Sarah sat with the patient and talked softly. She held the woman’s hand. "I was able to de-escalate the situation,” Sarah says. “I knew exactly what to say because I knew the psychology behind the behavior.” After a few moments with Sarah, the patient was able to sleep.

Sarah, on the other hand, was wide awake. "I suddenly understood something clearly; I wanted to help patients with behavioral health issues."

Now, behavioral health nursing is Sarah’s career sweet spot, but it was a winding road that got her there.

It all began at UMD. She graduated in June 2011 with a major in health education and later that month started work as an employee wellness manager for an insurance company. It was a great position, but she was behind a desk. As Sarah says, “It wasn’t enough. I wanted to work with people one-on-one.”

What happened next, "answered 'The Million Dollar Question' about what I should do," Sarah says.

Sarah found a unique program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where, in just 16 months, she could earn a Master in Nursing degree. The program is a full-time, graduate-level program for students with a baccalaureate degree in any other field. "It fit me perfectly," she says. "It's a great program."

Anyone with a non-nursing undergraduate degree is eligible for the masters degree program. "This is a wonderful opportunity for UMD and the Twin Cities campus to collaborate to strengthen the nursing workforce in Minnesota," says Laurissa Stigen, coordinator for System Campus Partnerships. "We're proud of the program because it allows students to build upon their unique educational experiences and prepares them to be entry level registered nurses."

The same month she married Steve Westholm, Sarah started the M.N. program. At first she rented an apartment in Minneapolis. Then she commuted from Duluth and stayed with family and friends. In the last session, her capstone seminar at Essentia Health, she was able to stay in Duluth.

Essentia hired her immediately to work in the surgery ward and was happy to accommodate Sarah with a transfer to the behavioral health area.

Essentia Health recently opened a new unit in the emergency room and Sarah understands why. "When people with mental health issues face trauma like an accident or an illness, they are going to have special issues in the emergency room," Sarah says. "Behavioral health nurses can ease the tension while treating the patients. It's a way to give special care where it's needed most."