September 25, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 34

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Cheryl R. Staats

Photo by Fernando Serna


It’s all in what you wear and how you present yourself. So why does Cheryl R. Staats, M.S.N., R.N., dressed up as Florence Nightingale, walk into an auditorium full of students? Well, to impress the important contributions the mother of nursing had on the health career she created.

"Students are surprised and shocked to see a suffragette march in with banners and sash singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic or ‘Flo’ in a taffeta and velvet gown with petticoats," says Staats. "I look stupid but I have a great time, and they remember the information given in the interactions and communication process. I’m an ordinary person, dedicated to education but a straight shooter."

Indeed, this assistant professor in the School of Nursing doesn’t tend to keep much in.

"When looking in the mirror of education, I see myself as a challenger, facilitator, guide, risk taker, bridge builder, coach, negotiator, activator and learner," says Staats, a former medical-surgical staff nurse. "I do not see a teacher, instructor, trainer or lecturer. When dealing with students, I try to pull them in the direction they need to go. I focus on learning that can, should and must take place."

She simply "aims" her students in the right direction using their abilities and understandings to guide her.

"The challenge is getting rid of the fluff and providing interestingly interactive material," says Staats, who has also dressed up as suffragette Livinia Dock. "The opportunity sits with creativity in promoting a desire for active lifelong learning."

The role-playing nurse is considered more than just a teacher of geriatric and palliative care nursing.

"Because of her efforts, she is now one of the recognized leaders in the field of geriatric and palliative care at the School of Nursing and in the community, and has propelled these branches of medicine into prominence," says Dr. Marion Primomo, who teaches medical students about death and dying. "Mrs. Staats is an inspiring mentor and a model of professional excellence, superior knowledge and compassionate caring."

Staats’ expertise is in gerontology, palliative care and issues revolving around death and communication. Her challenge is in communicating enthusiasm into these subject areas. "Students would be bored to death if the material were dry as a bone and stiffly presented," says Staats, who began her nursing career in the small Appalachian town of Elkins, W. Va. "Creatively blending humor and humanity with the topic of death is vital."

In the nursing elective, Contemporary Issues Related to Death and Dying, which she teaches, "each class begins with ‘really bizarre stories’ from the news or a cartoon relating to some aspect about death," she says. "Humor is encouraged as a release from the reality of such a serious subject. In the course, we laugh as well as cry. All participants in the class look inward and outward to recognize the fragile nature of life and the subtleties in providing care to individuals, families and communities living at death’s door.

"I couldn’t talk to my father about the ‘D’ word," says Staats. "As a society, death is still tucked away in the closet. We’re a death-denying, death-defying society."

Staats strives to keep the interest level high in the multi-school elective, "Interdisciplinary Approaches and Issues in Death and Dying," by developing teaching strategies, such as panel discussions, simulated team meetings, student interviews with individuals who’re living with chronic disease, videotapes and guest speakers from the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance and the Bexar County Forensic Science Center.

Gerontological nursing at the graduate level affords Staats the opportunity to share experiences with a different level of learner.

"Ms. Staats made the content come alive for us," says Vicky Dittmar, B.S.N., R.N., one of Staats’ graduate students. "Her love of geriatric nursing care came through during lectures, roundtable discussions and shared experiences. Best of all, she brought to the class her own brand of humorous insights in caring for this population."

As a learner, Staats has discovered "everyone has something to teach. I have learned more from my students than they could imagine. I know they have learned from me."

— Fernando Serna