The American Nurse: A Labor of Love for Rhonda Collins and Carolyn Jones

The American Nurse: A Labor of Love for Rhonda Collins and Carolyn Jones

There are approximately 3.1 million registered nurses in the US and that number is expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent by 2020, making it one of the fastest growing and more important professions. Despite this, many think the value of a nurse pales in comparison to that of physicians, but why? A nurse will be a patient’s first encounter at the hospital or perhaps the last face they’ll ever see. These women—and a growing number of men—will answer a call button day or night, check vitals, administer medication and spend exponentially more time on patients than doctors generally provide. Not only are they important, but they are the backbone of the medical field and an integral part of providing the best health care possible today.

Colleen Lemoine and Kimberly Smith on the front cover of the book
Colleen Lemoine and Kimberly Smith on the front cover of the book

When the opportunity came up to interview Carolyn Jones, author and photographer of The American Nurse, I was elated that there was someone willing to tell the often-untold stories of this courageous and dedicated group. Jones is an accomplished author of four books, photographer and an award-winning filmmaker. She is also a cancer survivor who became close to the nurse who helped her through chemotherapy several years ago. 

Jones interviewed 103 nurses—five of them from Louisiana—and was able to produce the book in less than a year. Despite the hectic schedule, she enjoyed the entire process. “I’ve been interviewing people for 25 years and I never encountered another group of people that was so forthcoming and open without veneer. They’d tell it like is,” said Jones.

The American Nurse was originally the idea of Rhonda Collins, a vice-president and business manager at Fresenius Kabi, USA, a medical device company.  Prior to that, Collins was a nurse for 20 years and thought it was time to educate people about who nurses really are. “I want the general public to understand that we’re not what you see on television or in movies,” said Collins. “We’re incredibly diverse, very well educated and an extremely well disciplined group of people.”

World traveler Jones photographed by Paul Mobley
World traveler Jones photographed by Paul Mobley

Collins had a distinct vision in mind for the book, wanting it to be sincere, exceptional and classy—that’s where Jones came in. Focusing on areas of concentration for poverty, obesity, returning vets, end-of-life care and prison systems, Jones asked hospitals across the country to nominate their most exceptional nurses. “We wanted the best of the best and we also wanted their personal or professional story to be unique,” said Collins.

New Orleans was of specific interest to her. “I wanted nurses who had been through Katrina because that was life changing for so many people and for our profession because those of us who weren’t here, we watched from afar and thought ‘what would I do if that were me?’” said Collins.

But once in New Orleans, locals were wondering why the focus remained on Katrina. “One man at the hotel was not happy, saying New Orleans is about so much more than Katrina,” said Jones who listened to him talk about a city that’s no longer “recovering” but growing instead. “I’m glad he called me on it because it changed my perspective.” Her outlook moved from the storm to how it changed the nurses themselves, especially that of the nurse on the cover. “Colleen Lemoine is hugging a chemo patient while getting an infusion…she’d been through Katrina and now has all that compassion that she gathered through that storm and it made her even more of who she is.”

Lemoine, Smith and Jones
Lemoine, Smith and Jones

Lemoine, an oncology nurse then at the Interim LSU Public Hospital, recalled the challenges of the heat, darkness and moving patients through the stairwells to be evacuated. She told me that she wasn’t too keen on having her picture taken but she’s proud of the cover shot and enjoyed the interview process. “Carolyn gave you a springboard with a question and let it go wherever you felt like it needed to go,” recalled Lemoine who often got emotional during the interview process.

She has a special, impassioned place in her heart for the patients she’s treated over her 28-year career. “You really see people just at the essence of who they are to the core with every kind of trapping stripped away; they are really genuine and authentic,” said Lemoine who thought about other things during her career that captured her. “I love people when they are bald from chemo as their faces are just so beautiful to me…I love them.”

Tonia Faust at the chapel in Angola where services are held for her patients
Tonia Faust at the chapel in Angola where services are held for her patients

Another aspect that fascinated Jones and Collins was how nurses could be impartial, especially when treating a criminal. “How do you separate your personal feelings and judgment from your ability to care for them? That is a unique ability in all nurses,” said Collins, and Jones agreed. “They said you [have to] look at every person as though they’re someone’s son, daughter or brother and you don’t think about what they did…you just think about caring for the patient,” explained Jones. “I don’t know any other group of people in this world that actually does that, which is why I think [nurses] need to have a voice.”

This led Jones to interview Tonia Faust, who is the coordinator of the hospice program at Angola, the only maximum-security prison in Louisiana. We were so intrigued by her story that we drove there to interview her in person. The majority of the prisoners there are “lifers” and some will end up in Faust’s center. She currently oversees treatment of approximately a dozen patients and a multitude of inmates who volunteer for her. The men we met were so passionately dedicated to helping her at the center that we wondered how they ever ended up there. Faust, who never looks at the crimes committed by the inmates, attributes it to bad choices. “I tell my children that these are nice men who made some poor decisions…doing something they shouldn’t have been doing,” said Faust, who has introduced her children to her staff of volunteers. “I can show my son that this is why you don’t do those things.”

Volunteers from the hospice at Angola with a quilt they crafted to be sold at the rodeo
Volunteers from the hospice at Angola with a quilt they crafted to be sold at the rodeo

Faust, who was a little apprehensive about taking the position, admitted that she thought people initially viewed her as the “death nurse,” but now, couldn’t imagine not doing it. It’s a challenge for her to get inmates who need hospice to commit to it. “They think it’s signing their death wish, but once I get them here they know that they’re not giving up, there’s just nothing else medically that can be done for them.” When the time comes, Faust rotates her volunteers to be with the patient around the clock until they pass on. “No matter what they’ve done, no one deserves to die alone and none of my patients ever will.”

These are just two of the compelling stories featured in The American Nurse and we at NolaWoman.com read it cover to cover. It will enlighten you, move you and change your perception of a nurse forever. For more information, visit The American Nurse and to purchase, visit Barnes and Noble and Amazon.