UNCG Magazine

Heart to heart

Her dad’s taught her a lot. Now she’s teaching him a few things too.

By Matthew Bryant • Photography by Martin W. Kane

Grit. Stamina. A great sense of humor. And the ability to check your emotions at the door. These are some of the characteristics that reveal themselves when getting to know Les and Sara Nichols, a father-daughter team currently making their way through the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program at UNC Greensboro.

These also happen to be traits that define a successful health care professional able to withstand the trials of a hospital emergency ward. Les and Sara know this well. Outside of school, the father and daughter duo serve in the same emergency unit at High Point Medical Center, where they take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it on the job, and vice-versa.

Les and Sara tackle job- and school-related problems by drawing upon their respective experience and skill sets. Les is able to bring his many years’ experience working in various fields and being a dad to the table, while Sara is able to bring her fresh perspective and right-brain sensibilities. “I know his strengths and weaknesses and he knows mine, so we can help each other out,” says Sara.

They are passionate about what they do, and they have each other’s
backs – on the hospital floor as well as in classes, at clinicals, and during
marathon study sessions for big exams.

I never dreamed that when I was holding her as a baby that I would be in school with her one day, to be able to share this experience and go down this road.

– Les Nichols

The journey

Les Nichols didn’t know he would end up being a nurse. After working for years in commercial photography, and later as an electrician and construction project manager, nursing wasn’t on his radar. But losing a close friend to ALS in 2006 changed his life. Having served as his friend’s personal caretaker during those final months, Les realized what he was meant to do. He decided then and there to embark on a career in health care.

Fast forward to 2020, and he is one year away from graduating from the nursing program.

On the other hand, Sara knew early on she wanted to be a nurse. She took advanced career preparation courses in high school that were geared toward health care, and went straight into the BSN program at UNCG. She will graduate this May.

Runs in the family

The nursing program at UNCG has a history of family members going through nursing training together. Is it a coincidence?

“If you have that compassion in your heart, and you have that willingness to take care of another person and put yourself last, then it’s kind of a trait that does seem to be passed down from generation to generation,” says Les. “What I have heard from a lot of my student friends is, ‘I was really impressed by the nurse so-and-so had during a rough time in their life,’ and it changed them. I think it’s really easy at that point for it to be a family-type thing.”

For Les, it was the life-changing loss of a friend that brought him to the field. But for Sara, it was watching her dad go into the nursing field that eventually gave her the bug. Like many kids, she hated going to the doctor. As she grew older, however, seeing how her dad cared for patients – the way in which he was deeply invested in looking after others – had a lasting effect on her.

“As soon as you get a look into the other side and see it from a provider standpoint – when you witness what’s really going on – I feel like you can’t help but be interested in how it all works and how it all runs. Once you see it from someone else’s standpoint, you either love it or you hate it. And if you love it, you’re going to go all in.”

Going through the nursing degree program and being employed in the profession together has only deepened Les and Sara’s bond. “Being in nursing school with her has definitely been the highlight of my life,” Les says.” I never dreamed that when I was holding her as a baby that I would be in school with her one day, to be able to share this experience and go down this road.”

Les Nichols and daughter Sarah Nichols

Who’s the boss?

Sara is a year ahead of her dad in the nursing program, which means that theoretically, as the senior member of the dad-and-daughter team, she can offer him sage advice about how to succeed in nursing school. Les shoots her the side-eye in the joking, good-natured way the two often interact when she offers him some tips.

“It’s going to get frustrating at times,” she says. “You’ll have your own way of doing things. Just stick with the program because what you’re learning is good, and it’s going to be so beneficial.”

In return, Les offers his wisdom and sensibility as a dad. “The number one thing I can say – especially if you stay in the emergency ward – is to check your feelings at the door. Understand that for everybody who comes in, there’s a backstory. Understanding that helps you to be a better nurse.”

And he has more to share: Adhere to what you’ve been taught at nursing school. Work on your therapeutic communication. Be good and true to everyone. Avoid burn-out.

As for what makes a good nurse, Les draws upon his many years of bedside experience. And ironically, his experience working as an electrician comes in handy, too. It’s all about the ability to comprehend systems, and how things are connected. “Understanding and knowing the technical side of what we do, then being able to blend it with compassion and empathy, is key. Heartfelt care is what I think truly makes a good nurse, and you’ve got to be able to bridge those things together.”

Support systems

Of all the unique aspects of UNCG’s nursing program, one that particularly stands out is the way in which faculty and mentors in the nursing program take a hands-on and real-world approach to training their students.

“I love how many of my lecture instructors are the same as my clinical instructors because that way they can see me in the classroom and in the clinical setting,” Sara says. “They’re there for you, and they really want the students to succeed.”

Les agrees. “I love how there are instructors that are practicing nurses in the field,” he says, noting that instructors who also make hospital rounds are more likely to be up to date on the latest evidence-based practice, skills, and techniques that nurses are using today.

Sara and Les note that UNCG’s proximity to a number of highly respected regional magnet hospitals creates great opportunities for students to get real-world clinical experience.

Sara and Les working with one of the practice mannequins in the Simulation Lab.

Keeping it real

It’s one thing to insert a needle in the arm of a mannequin. They’re not squirming. They’re not saying ouch. But it’s a very different experience when the patient is a live human being. They express pain. Maybe they are disoriented. Some might even be angry. For nursing students, the difference between the two scenarios during training can really drive home what they have learned.

“Having the opportunity to do some of our simulation labs with live actors changes your mindset, because you’re not going to be talking to a mannequin that’s not talking back,” says Les.

And the nurse training isn’t just about academics and the technical aspects. Les and Sara are adamant in their praise in how the nursing program aims to improve work culture – one that is more collaborative, where seasoned and newer nurses support each other in ways big and small.

“They teach us to buddy up, work with a partner,” she says. “Look who’s besides you – this person can be in the trenches with you one day and you’re going to need to help this person out. So they really do an outstanding job of teaching teamwork amongst the nursing community. And they’re really trying to break that culture of being on an island alone as a nurse.”

Having the opportunity to do some of our sims with live people changes your mindset, because you’re not going to be talking to a mannequin that’s not talking back

– Les Nichols

What’s next

The interviews and photography for this article were done just before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the United States. As we went to press, we checked in once more, by phone.

As with many in the health care field, Les and Sara have had to adapt quickly to the pandemic both on the job and at school. Their workload at the hospital has increased, and some of their simulation labs have been temporarily delayed during UNCG’s transition to online and social distancing. But as with anything that has come their way, the Nichols’ determination will get the job done. Sara and Les are on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, and they are well-prepared.

Les and Sara already have their finger on the pulse of post-graduation opportunities. For Les, the short-term plan is to be able to work with heart patients. The long-term trajectory could take him to far-away places.

“I would like to be in an intensive care unit for heart patients,” says Les. “The other thing I’d like to get into is travel nursing. The nursing shortage is becoming such a huge problem. But there’s this beautiful entity called travel nursing where you can travel to different systems across the country to work. I would go anywhere that is in need of emergency ward nurses.”

Sara has a similar mindset. The more immediate goal is to get post graduation experience as a nurse in an emergency ward. But her eyes, too, are set on adventure.

“I have a heart for the world.” Ultimately, she wants to be a nurse on a global emergency relief team, going into tragedies and disaster sites to perform first aid, helping the people that lose everything. “While everybody else is leaving and evacuating, I want to be on the team that goes in.”

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