By Bill Knief
Melissa Offenhartz took over the UNM-Taos Nursing Program when Kathy Falkenhagen retired after bringing the program up to full national certification and having 100 percent of the first two cohorts pass their national board exams—something rarely achieved even in more established nursing programs.
On a cold, bleak winter’s day last week I drove over to the building across the street from Holy Cross Hospital that houses the nursing program in its lower level to find out how Offenhartz was doing, and see what it had been like to follow in Falkenhagen’s footsteps.
“Kathy did such an amazing job creating this program and giving it a really strong foundation that it made it easier stepping into this role,” Offenhartz said. “Also, I came on board at the time when the program was preparing their self-study for the accreditation process, so that was a great education about the program in itself. I’m very familiar with the program and I’ve got good relationships with the faculty and students, so it was a good fit ”
I knew that Offenhartz came to us by way of New York, and I was curious as to what had drawn her here. She told me that she had actually been working on her PhD in biology when she left graduate school and went back to college to finish up a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Indiana University. She graduated in 1993, moved to New York City on a scholarship to work for Lenox Hill Hospital, a 600 bed medical center in Manhattan, for the next ten years.
“I love science, but I came to realize that being an academic scientist was too isolated for me. I wanted a career where I was interacting with people, and blending that science with hands-on treatment. I worked in an AIDS unit at a time when people were not being treated effectively for HIV infections, so they were very sick, and then I worked in a cardiac ICU, and while I was there I discovered that I love to teach. I loved teaching patients and patients’ families, and I decided to go back to graduate school at New York University, and got my Master’s Degree in Nursing Education. I taught a whole variety of nursing courses there, and then worked at Mt. Sinai as a clinical educator. My last job in New York was with Rockefeller University Hospital. I was the director of the nursing department there.
“All in all I had been in nursing in New York for 20 years, and I was looking for where I would spend the next 20 years of my career. I knew of Taos because I was a big hiker and mountaineer and because of the type of community it is, but I never had the opportunity to visit, so when I was thinking about leaving New York, I put Taos on my short list of places I’d like to check out. I came here over Christmas last year and just fell in love with the place. I think for a lot of people, when they come to Taos, they either know it’s for them or it’s not. I had the feeling that this is where I wanted to be, and in six months I had moved to Taos, even before I knew they had a nursing program here. I would say I am unafraid to take on new things, and I enjoy being challenged. I like to try to figure out positive ways to address problems. I might take an hour to decide what sox to wear but it takes me five minutes to make big, life-changing decisions. I feel that I am in exactly the place that I should be right now.
“I came to Taos thinking I was going to slow down!” Offenhartz said with a laugh.
“The amount of information in healthcare is increasing exponentially, what with the new statewide nursing curriculum and the new, complex Affordable Care Act. For someone thinking of a career in nursing, I would say the first thing they should consider is some volunteer work at the hospital. It gives you a good feel for what it’s like to provide care for people. It’s not for everyone. It takes a special kind of person who can work taking care of others. You’ll get a realistic view of nursing; it’s not like it’s portrayed on television! Then, of course, you need to work on your math and science at all grade levels. You’ll need a strong foundation in math and science to practice nursing in today’s world. But it can be a very satisfying and rewarding career.”
You can contact the UNM-Taos Nursing Program by calling 737-3745.