Once failing high school, nurse practitioner now champions health care equity, diversity – InForum

FARGO — Whitney Fear overheard an evaluative conversation among her fellow caregivers in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a hospital she couldn’t let go.

Her fellow sisters were discussing an infant who was to be brought into the department from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. One of the nurses said disparagingly that the child probably had fetal alcohol syndrome.

“I just whirled around and told them you have no idea what it’s like growing up there,” she said.

Fear, now a psychiatric nurse, knows well what it’s like to grow up on a reservation where entrenched poverty and lack of opportunity are stubborn facts of life. She is a registered member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Experiences like the conversation in the NICU convinced Fear that the nursing profession needs more diversity. She believes that the greater the awareness that healthcare professionals from diverse backgrounds have, the more comprehensive the profession can offer to patients.

“There really is a need for that,” said Fear, who works at Family HealthCare’s downtown Fargo clinic. In the United States, there are only 12 Native American doctorate nurses, and 0.8% of nurses are Native American.

Still, American Indians suffer from far higher rates of disease, including diabetes, heart disease, and alcoholism, than the general population.

Fear, who began to advocate for the need for greater diversity in healthcare, is featured in a documentary titled Who Cares: A Nurse’s Fight for Equity, which will be shown to an audience of nurses and nursing students at a special screening at the Fargo- Theatre.

She hopes the film, which was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will help open people’s eyes. It includes candid discussions between Fear and her colleagues – one of whom jokingly says Fear “talks like a sailor” – and comments from her appreciative patients, including a formerly homeless Aboriginal man struggling with addiction.

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Fear rose through the ranks, starting as a licensed practical nurse, then working as a registered nurse before becoming a registered nurse.

Drawn to mental health and psychiatric nursing, she also enjoys working with the diverse patient community at Family HealthCare, a licensed health center.

Now, with a dozen years of nursing experience, Fear said, “I’ve worked with people with mental illness since I was born.”

Whitney Fear, right, nursing case manager and visiting nurse at Family HealthCare, speaks with community member Harlan Sylvester after Thursday's meeting.  Fear was one of six panellists during the evening's discussion.  Kim Hyatt / Forums

Whitney Fear, right, then a care case manager and emergency housing visiting nurse at Family HealthCare, speaks with community member Harlan Sylvester after a community meeting. Angst was one of six panellists during the discussion.

Forum file photo

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Fear got such bad grades in high school that she thought she had dug a hole in school that she couldn’t get out of.
“I kind of hit a wall in high school,” she said.

Her grades dropped as she became apathetic about her schoolwork, driven by a deep pessimism.

She watched as her father never seemed to get ahead despite years of hard work, including jobs outside of the family’s cattle station to pay the bills.

“Often it was for nothing to go on for another year,” she said. “He was exhausted the whole time. What’s the point of working so hard anyway? You can work hard all your life and still have nothing.”

Discouraged, Fear fell into a period of alcohol abuse.

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“I was a teenage alcoholic,” she said, adding that she also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It felt good not to feel anything. The poverty down there is so great.”

But then a high school counselor, who recognized her intelligence and potential, managed to change Fear’s fatalistic attitude and help her find meaning in life.

“He was just very blunt,” she said. At the time she was supposed to be a high school junior but only had enough credits to be a sophomore. “I didn’t know how to fix it,” Fear said.

The counselor placed her in an early entry program at the tribal Oglala Lakota College, where she took classes two nights a week while also taking her high school courses.

“I basically kept myself as busy as possible so I wouldn’t get lazy and give up,” she said.

Her teachers’ encouragement boosted her confidence, and she entered a science competition. Inspiration also came from her family, especially her father who is a role model.

“My family has been pretty lucky in a lot of ways,” she said. “We had electricity and running water. We had enough to eat.”

She began her nursing education at a technical college, then attended North Dakota State University before earning a Masters of Science degree in nursing from Maryville University in St. Louis. Her clinical interests include disorders arising from trauma or stressors, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, personality disorders and substance use disorders.

Early in her nursing career, she had frequently encountered mental illnesses with patients in the emergency room.

Her own early experiences with mental illness and growing up in rural poverty help her connect with patients. She is also a mother to 9-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.

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“I’m not in this place anymore and haven’t been for a long time,” but this dark chapter in her life gives her an insight into the illnesses of her patients.

To treat her patients, Fear has learned to pick up cues from their body language while pulling them out, relying on their own struggles.

She has “learned the power to really listen to people.”


Psychiatric nurse Whitney Fear draws on her experiences, including early struggles with alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress, to treat her patients.

Courtesy of SHIFT Productions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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A panel discussion will follow the special screening of the documentary Who Cares: A Nurse’s Fight for Equity at the Fargo Theatre.
Participants will discuss equity in healthcare, how nurses can best provide individualized care and integrate health equity acts into their practice, and reshape the narrative of care. You will conclude with a discussion on inspiring the next generation of nurses.

Whitney Fear’s story shows how nurses can help achieve health justice for their patients, said Beth Toner, registered nurse and spokesperson for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We strongly believe that nurses – they already do – have a role to play in health equity,” she said. Nursing staff are important links because they are centrally involved in direct patient care. “They have the most contact with people wherever they work — hospitals, community clinics, schools.”

Fear’s story and her example in overcoming difficulties in her life can also inspire other nurses, Toner said. “In a way, it reminds nurses why they got into nursing in the first place,” she said. “We wanted healthcare professionals and the public to have equal representation in the healthcare profession. The nursing profession needs to become more diverse.”

You can stream the Who Cares: A Nurse’s Fight for Equity documentary online here.

The film, produced by SHIFT Productions and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, stars Whitney Fear, a psychiatric nurse at Family HealthCare in Fargo.

SHIFT_WhoCares_TrailerCover (1).jpg

SHIFT Productions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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