Leah Schulz always wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to care for the sick but also work close to her hometown of Edgeley.
This week Schulz retires as director of nursing at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown. She supervised 260 nursing staff to include 42 nurses, 20 license practical nurses and 198 direct care assistants.
“It’s been a good run,” Schulz said.
With a 94-year-old mother she would like to care for, Schulz said it was the right time to step down. She would also like to travel with her husband Glenn, also retired from the State Hospital after 33 years, and visit their three children, two stepchildren and seven grandchildren.
“We are going to enjoy some us time,” Schulz said.
After completing a nursing degree at Mary College in Bismarck (now University of Mary) in 1986, Schulz worked at a rural hospital for a year. She was hired at the State Hospital in 1987.
“All my life I wanted to be a nurse and my vision of that was the white dress and the cap which they still had when I graduated,” Schulz said. “I saw nursing as being at the bedside helping people feel better physically.”
Schulz found that nursing duties in a psychiatric setting require more verbal interaction than the traditional hands-on nursing. A nurse meets the mentally ill patient “where they’re at” as a calming voice who can converse with someone who is living in a different reality, she said.
“This is the therapeutic environment of our units,” Schulz said. “It is to help them feel a source of comfort.”
Schulz started as a geriatric infirmary floor nurse and then the evening shift nurse in what is today where inmates live in the neighboring James River Correctional Center. The building closed with the advent of nursing home care and Schulz continued as the administrative nurse for the adolescent unit and nursing coordinator for the chemical dependency units.
Linda Nygaard, the previous director of nursing, retired in 2008 after 33 years at the State Hospital. Schulz was selected as her replacement and worked as a co-director while completing a master’s degree in nursing through Walden University.
The administrative role helps ensure nurses are trained to care for patients with psychiatric illness, Schulz said.
“Nurses are already considered to be compassionate people but psychiatric nurses need to be even more person centered,” she said.
The field of psychiatry has changed significantly, she said. Ongoing research and new medications have resulted in more effective treatment, she said.
“When I started there was more of an acceptance that for some clients this was their home,” Schulz said. “The shift now is to have them not remain in the hospital long term and to find community settings and improve quality of life.”
Antipsychotic medications have changed and are more effective now, said Eduardo Yabut, M.D., medical director of the State Hospital. Psychiatric nursing has also changed with the need to conduct assessments for medication outcomes and side effects, he said.
Schulz implemented the changes in nursing standards at the State Hospital, Yabut said.
“It’s been a good relationship over the years,” Yabut said. “I’ve enjoyed my collaboration with Leah, both professionally and personally.”
Nurses today must also understand court ordered mental stability evaluations, patient rights and guardian notification requirements, said Rosalie Etherington, superintendent of the State Hospital.
“Thirty years ago that was not as much of a concern,” she said.