Education Award Winner 2015

The Winner of’s Annual $5,000 Education Award is Ken Irwin who is a Mental Health Registered Nurse at Oregon State Hospital. Nursing is a 2nd career for Ken, a switch that he contemplated for a long time. He has a sister in law who is an amazing nurse. Several of Ken’s friends have switched careers to Nursing and like most people, they talked about their jobs. Nursing was always in the back of his mind.

After completing his first bachelor’s degree to be a biology teacher, teaching jobs were difficult to find so Ken worked as a Wildlife Biologist for 5 years and loved it. His job entailed wildlife surveys in the field observing human impact and regulatory issues related to sensitive species including spotted owls, marbled murrellets, and peregrine falcons.

After this experience, Ken became a stay-at-home Dad for his 2 sons, one of whom has autism. He had a part-time job doing secured medical transports for psychiatric and dementia patients transporting them to a facility that had a bed available. He enjoyed working with this set of clients and started thinking about Mental Health Nursing.

He eventually started substitute teaching which he did for 7+ years. During this time, he had the opportunity to spend a couple nights in the hospital. How did he have this opportunity? He had a heart attack at the age of 43! Fortunately, he’s doing fine. He got to see first-hand what was involved with Nursing and realized this is what he wanted to do.

Ken was teaching anatomy and physiology and was very excited about these subjects. He did his Nursing pre-requisites in 1 year and kept teaching. He was accepted to Linfield College’s 15 month accelerated Nursing program for people with a prior BS. He earned his BSN and graduated in August 2014.

In December 2014, Ken started his Nursing career in Mental Health at Oregon State Hospital. He commutes 3 hours round-trip and works the swing shift from 2:30pm – 11:00pm.

Ken2.jpgKen is responsible for maintaining safety – managing behaviors, explaining rules and expectations as well as setting boundaries. Ken explained “there are approximately 25 patients in each unit so there is plenty of opportunity for conflict. Some patients can be delusional, psychotic and aggressive. Patients like to test boundaries – and many of them need help with social skills and coping skills.”

He also facilitates a therapeutic environment and fulfills basic psychosocial needs. He offers education about medications and the importance of taking them regularly. Ken said “many patients are there because they stopped taking their meds. The goal is to get patients stabilized to go home with family or to an apartment of their own, or an appropriate community setting like a group home. Patients are there anywhere from 3 months to a year or longer. It is very individualized.”

Ken loves the people he works with – “the CNA’s, nurses, and managers are wonderful. The long commute is worth it to be part of such a great team. They are what keeps me here.” About his patients, Ken said “it’s really a rough situation for some of these folks. Some are so psychotic, they can’t take care of their basic needs. Mental health has no biases. Some patients have amazing academic backgrounds; some are young adults who have mental health issues emerge that change their path in life; some come from unfortunate situations – trauma history, abuse, etc.”

He explained “many of these people live on the margins of society. They may have been homeless or lived in a single occupancy hotel room. Many are there because of a court order stating they are a danger to themselves or others. They may have been violent, made threats or can’t take care of themselves. My job is very rewarding at OSH. I see the same clients day-after-day, week-after-week, people transferred in and out. Once we get patients stabilized, they go back out into the community and hopefully they’ll do ok in their next situation and not have to come back.” He thinks as many as 25% of patients will be readmitted because of non-compliance with meds or interactions with law enforcement.

About his choice to be a Nurse, Ken said “if I knew what Nursing is today, I probably would’ve pursued it sooner. I didn’t know the level of responsibility and knowledge that a Nurse must have. The doctors depend on us as another set of eyes. We have more interaction with patients and we’re the last person to look at medication orders to keep clients safe. There is much more thinking and problem solving involved than I realized.”

ken1.jpgI asked about what he sees for himself down the road. Ken loves what he’s doing – the connections with the patients and the medical team. The feeling that he’s helping people. He thinks teaching and Nursing attract the same type of people – people who want to help others. He has many interests and while he enjoys Mental Health Nursing, he liked the exposure to other areas of nursing during his clinical rotations. Ken appreciates the wide range of specialties that Nursing offers and realizes “I can do almost anything!” He plans to continue his Nursing education and consider the many specialty options available. Congratulations Ken!!!

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