By Andrea Maneri
“You’re going to have days where you cry, when you feel like you want to walk away from it all,” says Tara Howard-Saunders, a School of Nursing adjunct professor who also serves on the Adelphi Alumni Association’s board. “But I encourage you to stay with it. Don’t give up when you’re faced with obstacles because meeting those challenges is empowering and your hard work will pay off in the long run.” Her advice to Adelphi’s current nursing students comes from personal experience.
After she graduated from Adelphi with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1984, her first job was in pediatrics in the hospital setting. “I had crying moments, times when I felt like I was just not getting it right.” What stands out most is how her nurse manager failed to take advantage of the opportunity to provide guidance to a novice. “There were times I was called into the nurse manager’s office, but instead of being supportive, she was more punitive in her approach,” she recalls.
For a time, this lack of mentorship turned her away from hospital nursing. Instead, she entered public health nursing and provided patient education in elementary schools while pursuing a master’s degree in public health from Hunter College, which she received in 1987. It wasn’t until she saw an ad posting a position in psychiatry that she found herself excited to return to the hospital setting. “I always had an interest in psychiatry,” she says.
She joined the staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital, providing psychiatric nursing care to adult patients, as well as to teenagers dealing with mental illness and depression or who were suicidal or cutters. “You need confidence, ability and competency to handle psychiatrically impaired individuals, and when they reach out in crisis, you need to be able to respond quickly, intelligently and safely,” she says. “Psychiatry is not for everyone, but it’s my niche. I haven’t left psychiatry since.”
During her career in psychiatry, she has functioned as both nurse manager and psychiatric nurse practitioner, a role she was able to step into after receiving her master’s degree from Columbia University’s psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program in 1997. Her expertise and leadership have been sought by a number of institutions throughout her career—most recently, Mount Sinai Medical Center, which she joined in March 2010.
Today, she serves as clinical nurse manager of Mount Sinai’s child and adolescent psychiatry inpatient unit, managing more than 40 staff members, coordinating patient care, and implementing treatment plans. She emphasizes team building among her staff.
“Patient satisfaction is a core element of our mission, but it is also important to make sure the staff is satisfied with their job…that they find that even through the daily challenges, this is the place they want to come back to day after day,” she explains. “If I don’t take care of my staff, then I don’t have a floor, because without the staff, we can’t provide the care our patients need.”
Ms. Howard-Saunders, who keeps the lines of communication open with frequent staff meetings, makes a point of being a visible presence on the floor. “You can’t be the manager sitting behind your desk in the office,” she explains.
While Ms. Howard-Saunders still recalls the unconcerned approach of her first nurse manager, it does not discourage her—it inspires her to effectively lead her nursing staff in a supportive environment. “If my staff is in distress, I’m going to take the time to bring them in. Yes, I’m going to confront them with what it is they have to work on, but there is a way to do that with understanding versus criticism,” she says. “Let’s show a little empathy. Let’s show a little compassion. Because that’s the same empathy and compassion we’re going to show our patients.”