Interview with Katherine Connelly, RN, BSN by Melissa Fry 06-06-2020
Preferred pronouns: she/her
Current Occupation: Registered Nurse (Quarantined between COVID Field Hospital and next placement)
B.S.N. Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions
B.A. Sociology and Economics, Simmons University
Katherine Connelly graduated from nursing school on a Friday and entered a COVID field hospital the following Monday. She has an undergraduate degree and has just started her career in nursing. This interview offers a look at the earliest thoughts about application of her sociological background to her budding medical career. Already she has identified a fit between sociology and Emergency Medicine.
I ended up winning an award in Nursing School – “Most actuated toward thoughtfulness throughout the program.” I think it just means –“You brought sociology to nursing.”
Tell us about your path from an undergraduate major/minor in sociology to your current career. (What drew you to sociology? From that place, how did you find your way into medicine?)
I grew up in a family interested in social justice and in helping others, and so when I was in college, I actually was a pre-med major. I took Chemistry my first semester, and I took a sociology class called Body Politics because it felt relevant to healthcare and had a catchy name and I was interested in it. I fell in love with sociology. I got a C in Chemistry and realized okay, I’m not going to be a doctor, and I am so into sociology.
It was also a very stereotypical first sociology class at a women’s college. I think the first thing we read was Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Had Periods,” but then it really evolved into something profound. We talked about vegetarianism, hair growth, and the ways that bodies are politicized or not politicized and it just blew my mind. I was hooked. I decided I was going to be a sociology major.
I was also taking an Economics class at the time and I could see so many connections. How did we get here and how were these injustices allowed to be perpetuated. It assured me that I could find the answers to those questions.
I was really interested in the criminal justice system. At one point I thought maybe a PhD in Economics. I did an independent study in economics about prison privatization and it was a Marxists economics paper, which is a sociology paper. It looked at what happens when bodies become the means by which you earn a profit. I was fascinated by it.
When I graduated I got a job doing nonprofit fundraising at an organization that worked with young men involved in the criminal justice system. I wanted to do outreach because that’s what that organization does. But I couldn’t do what I wanted to, I couldn’t get a job doing it because I had not majored in Social Work and I did not have fieldwork experience. I ended up in fundraising. I loved the organization, but hated the job. I felt stuck in an office while other people were doing the real work in the world.
I felt stuck in an office while other people were doing the real work in the world.
It was in that time that I decided to go into nursing. I knew I did not want to sit behind a desk—I wanted to be in the trenches with people. With nursing I could be in the trenches, I could specialize, it requires intellectual thought and training, but it would allow me to spend all day every day with people.
And, I’ve met a lot of bad nurses and they could use a lot more insight on big social structures and the way that they impact people’s lives and create scenarios. Rather than judging your frequent fliers, maybe take a look at the social systems that lead them to end up there. It felt like I could bring all of my training so far to the work.
In what ways do you think your background in sociology informed your career path?
I did very well in nursing school, by my standards, but I also won awards. I think the thing that set me apart was my social science background. It was all about context.
The brain structure of needing to understand the whole structure in order to understand the individual thing that is happening now is a very useful tool in understanding the human body. When I did pathology, I didn’t just want to memorize that, for example, smoking causes emphysema. I needed to know why. I needed to know what happens when lungs function normally—what does that look like? And how will a problem affect the patient’s life, what they are doing day to day? I very quickly picked up the basic nursing skills and the academic parts. I attribute that to years of practice in learning a fact and then asking, why is that true or what other conditions impact that? That’s a really useful tool as a clinician to be able to ask those questions and, without answering them, be conscientious of all the things that are going on in the system. Academically, I succeeded for that reason.
I am able to, and interested in, contextualizing peoples’ experiences and healthcare choices. If I see noncompliance, I do not assume they do not care about themselves, or it’s too hard, or they are lazy. Instead, I am curious: can they afford their medications? Are they choosing between medications and rent? There are so many reasons people don’t do what we expect. I am good at never assuming and never being afraid to ask more questions.
I ended up winning an award –“Most actuated toward thoughtfulness throughout the program.” I think it just means –you brought sociology to nursing.”
In what ways do you think sociology informs how you do your current work?
First I was in the Emergency Department as a nursing assistant. I feel like again, this ability to empathize and understand peoples’ lives is very useful in an Emergency Department—a lot of psych patients, people experiencing homelessness, and COVID. I think my long term goal is to work as a nurse in the ER because there are even more pyscho-social requirements in the ED than in other nursing positions. You don’t know anything about them. You’re the first person to greet these people and bring them into the healthcare system. It feels like this place where my background and training meet. I can assess their lives, how they got here.
The ways that my potential is recognized have everything to do with the Sociological lens that I apply to everything: I have this desire to really understand all of it. I think I do want to get a PhD [in nursing] and I can see that and maybe that is how I get more power and shape it.
Then I went to a COVID -19 Field Hospital built by the military and MGH Institute. This facility was for people who were going to recover. There were no rich white people staying there. It was entirely working class, and people who were institutionalized in nursing homes, homeless shelters, or group homes. All the people that healthcare fails and they were all in one place and I was so grateful that I had the background that I had.
I had worked street outreach for the homeless when I was doing the prerequisites for nursing school….[At the COVID Field Hospital] I had this patient who was working with a nurse with far more experience nursing experience than I . She said “don’t throw away any of this guy’s stuff. He freaks out. He is so weird. Someone took some of his food and he lost it on them.” I was talking to her and I explained that this is a common experience for people experiencing homelessness. There is so little control and their belongings are something they can control. When somebody takes something from them, it’s significant, even if the item does not seem significant to you. He’s not just reactive. He’s not just a difficult patient. There are deeply embedded things that have made him act this way and the solution is simple. Don’t throw away his things without asking.
I had so many experiences like that. When people tell me where they live or about their life, I can see it and I can understand how it relates to their behavior or their feelings about things. I can anticipate and deescalate because of it. This was so important because all these people were disenfranchised…Even though it was my first job as a nurse, I really understood the patients, who they were and where they were coming from and that was helpful. I had something to offer.
In thinking specifically about the COVID-19 pandemic, where have you seen the role of social and institutional factors playing the greatest role in experiences and outcomes?
The pandemic has highlighted what is wrong with everything. When you have to shut down an entire society, you really see the ugliest parts of it. You see the people who can’t afford their rent and still have to pay it. Or can’t feed their families or are at higher risk for domestic violence or elder abuse or child abuse. You see kids who aren’t getting education that they need. It just has highlighted something that is wrong with everything. And, I mean, I haven’t even gotten to the healthcare part yet.
COVID has just shown us all of the ways that there is no net. There is nothing here for so many. People who are essential workers in our society, who go to grocery stores and work every day and don’t get paid a living wage is horrifying. That’s a really embarrassing problem that we have. We don’t know how to take care of the people who we call essential.
I just think there is so much that has been highlighted and it is this very glaring demonstration of the ways that healthcare fails communities of color, especially Black people. Across the board. There’s an episode of The Daily (podcast) about this. At the beginning of this, it was like, this is a great equalizer, but it wasn’t. Disproportionately Black communities lost people, lost young people, lost people who absolutely didn’t have to die from this.
I think this is just politics, but, ugh, there was a politician who said, “well they all have heart disease and diabetes.” Which is true, but they have it because of centuries of racial disparities in healthcare and in access to healthcare, and in access to good food and in access to things that prevent heart disease and diabetes so it’s not like the Black community is just disproportionately at risk for no reason. It’s because these institutions have condemned them to death. It’s horrifying.
(One more thing to add) I had a meeting with the Director of the nursing program. We ended up talking about grad school. I do think at some point I probably will want to go to a family nurse practitioner program. I wish that I had more power and say in how things are done so there is some part of me that thinks that is still on the agenda somehow.
The professor said, “You have to get a doctorate degree. You have to get a Ph.D. in nursing. The way that your mind works, you have to do research and you have to publish research because you will help the most people that way.” And she is someone who is a practitioner and also teaches and does research. I really love that. I attribute that to being interested in sociology.
The ways that my potential is recognized have everything to do with the Sociological lens that I apply to nursing.… I have this desire to really understand all of it. I think I do want to get a PhD and I can see that and maybe that is how I get more power and have more say in how things are done. I could go into management, but I could also go into studying the field. So it will continue to drive and shape my career. And my whole life, honestly. There are so many ways in my personal life that sociology comes up but also in my professional life. It really is like the most fundamental thing that I will carry with me.
What do you wish had been part of your undergraduate education and training in sociology but was not?
I wish there was more information on how to apply sociology. There was a lot of information about how to be an activist, but I wish they had a job fair. I mean it is hard because it’s so varied, but you know—these are things you can do with your degree. In economics, they had an alumni networking dinner every year and they would seat people with people who did things in the areas that interested students.
What advice do you have for undergraduate sociology students and/or sociology alumni who may have an interest in health/wellness, healthcare, or medicine?
Definitely do it. I don’t know how the healthcare system functions without people with a background in sociology. A lot of nursing programs require you take one course, but people with more breadth in sociology are really well-quipped to go into health care. Definitely pursue it. Don’t feel like because it is a social science it is not a science. It is important that we not just go into the field, but that we be leaders and shape it.