Eileen K. Mahler, MSN, RNC-OB, NE-BC, has established herself as a leader in her profession. She is the Director of Nursing Education, Professional Development, and Practice and Research, as well as the Magnet Program Director at South Nassau Communities Hospital – a not for profit, teaching hospital in Oceanside, New York.
One of the largest hospitals in the area, they provide 455 beds, employ over 3,000 individuals and have more than 900 physicians in the various specialty ranges. The hospital is well known for having achieved superior standards in acute care as well as state-of-the-art care in the cardiac, oncologic, orthopedic, bariatric, pain management, mental health and emergency services areas. As one might guess, being the Director of Nursing Education at a facility of such proportions, caliber and distinction, like that of South Nassau Communities Hospital, Eileen would have to be the best of the best.
Awards & Achievements
Interview - Question & Answer
Eileen, would you tell us a bit about your life before nursing?
I was raised in Woodside, New York. My mother had died right before my second birthday, so my father relocated from Brooklyn to Queens with his parents. My father and grandmother both worked full time. In grade school, I remember being a “latch key” child, as I had to let myself into our apartment building right after school. I was relied upon to start homework until my father arrived home from work to prepare dinner. I was fairly independent.
Where did the inspiration to become a nurse originate?
I recall reading a book called “Miss Sue, the Nurse” when I was in fourth grade that I loved. I remember being very impressed with the nurses in my pediatrician’s office and those in the hospital when I had my tonsils taken out. Their white uniforms and caps were sharp!
I learned nursing or caring, primarily from my grandmother and her innate attribute of always being there for others. Whenever a family member was sick, it seemed she was the one to take-on caring for them. As a child, my grandfather, who was diabetic, had his leg amputated. I have memories of her changing dressings, administering insulin, and trying to keep him as mobile as possible.
When I was in high school, my uncle who was living with us, developed throat cancer. My grandmother was able to keep him at home for as long as possible. When she was working, I helped with suctioning of his tracheostomy, giving him his pain medications, and general comfort measures. When he later had to be hospitalized, the nurses were so kind and caring to him and our family. I knew I wanted to be a nurse like that.
What did you do after completing nursing school?
I began my career as a staff nurse in Obstetrics. After a few years, I then transferred to Labor and Delivery. I was always one to take on additional activities, so I was trained and taught as a Childbirth Educator. I realized, I loved teaching patients. Especially in Labor and Delivery. Women in labor are so vulnerable and anxious; almost everything we do as nurses, relates to teaching and narrating the care you provide to patients to lessen their fears.
Describe your path towards a position in leadership…
I progressed through varied leadership positions: nurse manager, supervisor, and director. My path steered from education of patients to the education of the staff and nurse leaders that I worked with. This is equally important as through educating nurses, you truly influence the care and outcomes of the patients they serve.
Can you explain to our readers what a "Magnet Hospital" is and what it means?
Let me provide you with the hospital’s explanation; it would be the most comprehensive and accurate description.
“A Magnet recognized hospital is an organization that has been recognized by the American Nurses’ Credentialing Center (ANCC) after demonstrating excellence in patient care. The Magnet Recognition Program provides the ultimate benchmark for patients and their families to measure the quality of care they can expect at a hospital. It is called ‘Magnet’ because of the hospital’s ability to attract and retain professional nurses. To achieve Magnet recognition, organizations must pass a rigorous and lengthy process that begins with the submission of an electronic application, followed by written documentation demonstrating qualitative and quantitative evidence regarding patient care and outcomes, and it culminates with an on-site visit to thoroughly assess the applicant. After this rigorous on-site review, the Commission on Magnet reviews the completed appraisal and votes to determine whether Magnet recognition will be granted to the applicant.”
What are your responsibilities as Magnet Program Director?
As Magnet Program Director (MPD), I help facilitate South Nassau’s continuing journey to live the Magnet model. We have an extraordinary team of nurses in leadership and in clinical positions. Their commitment, leadership, autonomy, and innovation lead to exceptional patient outcomes. One key responsibility as MPD is to prepare our hospital’s Magnet application, our Magnet document, and ongoing reports. We work together as a leadership team to write the exemplars that highlight nursing excellence at South Nassau.
As MPD, I work with varied teams and committees within our organization to obtain data and evaluate how varied quality improvement projects can be highlighted in our document. Education is a large part of the MPD role. I work with our Magnet Champion nurses and our Nursing Practice Council to help educate nurses and interdisciplinary colleagues about the tenets of Magnet. We conduct Magnet Fairs and videos to ensure that all staff are involved and that the learning is fun.
Another exciting part of my role as MPD is planning our annual excursion to the National Magnet Conference. Designated nurses are selected from their units to attend each year. I plan the logistics related to conference registration, lodging, travel, and get-togethers once we arrive at our destination. It is amazing to see how the nurses attending are inspired and bring back ideas to further improve patient care and the practice environment at our hospital.
Do you feel that having been a nurse first, and then one who advanced to the position of Director of Nursing Education has influenced how you perceive those for whom you are responsible?
I truly believe that my experience advancing from a staff nurse, through leadership roles, into my position as Director of Nursing Education has influenced my perception of our nursing staff and the responsibility nurse leaders carry. As nursing leaders, we must never lose sight that we are removed from the daily challenges that our staff nurses face. We must listen, hear their voices, and involve them in decisions about nursing practice because it is our clinical nurses who know the realities and the solutions to the problems we face in healthcare settings across our nation.
In terms of responsibilities, what is the most important part of being a Director of Education?
As nursing educators, we must support nursing staff and find ways to engage them in lifelong learning within a rapidly changing practice environment. New practices, new equipment, new technology, new regulatory requirements, and changing priorities pull nurses away from the patient’s bedside. As a Director of Nursing education, one of my most important responsibilities is to ensure our nurses have the knowledge to provide the best nursing care to the patients we serve. For our new graduate nurses who are entering their careers in a highly complex environment, my most important responsibility is to facilitate their transition into practice. It is imperative to foster the success of new graduate nurses through partnering with schools of nursing, nursing leaders, nurse educators, nurse preceptors, and the new graduate RNs themselves. New nurses are the future of our profession and we strive to leave no new RN behind.
Would you agree with the statement that the nursing field is flexible?
I wholeheartedly agree. Nursing is an extremely flexible profession with numerous and varied opportunities. There are varied clinical specialties ranging from Neonatal Intensive Care to Geriatrics; from travel nursing to becoming a flight nurse; from the military to the business sector, and beyond.
In my own career, nursing has led me down paths I never would have envisioned: I have worked with architectural teams in designing nursing units, worked with cinematographers to create educational videos, wrote scripts for those videos, created Podcasts, sponsored fundraisers, taught nursing students as an adjunct professor, planned celebratory events such as Nurses’ Day and Magnet Fairs; met with representatives in Washington to discuss nursing concerns, created posters, participated in the development of a website, and much more. It is a diverse and rewarding career in which by giving to others, you receive even more.
What does the quote, "Once a nurse, always a nurse" mean to you?
I believe this quote reflects nursing as more than a job or profession, it is within one’s nature to care for others. Being a nurse is a heart-felt calling and does not “turn off” when we leave at the end of a shift or retire at the end of a career. It stays with you – it is who we are.
Some of our readers are considering attending nursing school. Would you tell us what challenged you the most academically or educationally?
I always did well academically, other than struggling with algebra, in particular. In graduate studies/education, the time to balance family, work, and academics was the most challenging aspect.
What challenged you the most emotionally about nursing school?
When caring for patients with poor prognoses or families with losses, there is always an emotional challenge. But I always tried to embrace the role of nursing as assisting others even through challenging or hopeless situations, to ease their path along the inevitability of life and death.
What made you choose Perinatal/Pediatrics as a specialty?
I loved maternal-child health. I never focused much on why but probably the loss of my own mother influenced this desire to care for mothers and infants and make a difference for them. As a manager and director in that area, I spent a good deal of my time in education of our staff. I had returned to school for my master’s degree as a Perinatal Clinical Nurse Specialist. I became a Neonatal Resuscitation instructor, gave documentation workshops for our staff, developed a Pediatric Update Class for nurses who cared for children throughout our organization, and worked with my managers to create content for our annual pediatric and perinatal mandatory education. It was a natural progression for me to eventually transition into an education role.
What characteristics do you think allow someone to thrive in nursing in general?
I believe adaptability and resilience are imperative. In nursing practice, the work environment and patient responses do not always proceed on a predictable path. Nurses must be diligent and alert for subtle changes and switch priorities and best laid plans quickly. Nurses must also be comfortable with the fast pace of clinical settings and have the ability to multitask and stack/restack their work of caring for multiple patients at one time.
I believe a calm and optimistic demeanor are essential in a nurse. We are faced with stress, but should not pass that stress along to others; especially our patients. We must look at the positive side of events and keep appropriate humor to help face the situations we encounter.
What characteristics do you think make for a successful Nursing Director of Education?
In my current position, the ability to embrace change and adapt to it is crucial; especially in our rapidly reforming healthcare system. Openness to new ideas and more streamlined ways of accomplishing goals are key. Working collaboratively with others in high functioning teams is a necessary skill. Attention to detail and the capacity to foresee the impact of decisions is also important.
Please tell us what “a-day-in-your-life” is like.
A day in my life as a director of nursing education varies greatly from week to week. There is never a typical day. Days are filled with multitasking, answering phone calls, sending emails, attending meetings, managing interruptions, supporting staff and nurse leaders, finding solutions, and celebrating staff achievements.
The projects in our department are complex and varied: interviewing new graduates for our residency programs, approving educational conferences, generating contracts with college affiliates to bring in nursing students to our hospital, planning continuing education activities, creating online learning modules, filming in-services, arranging for outside speakers, tracking educational completion, working on committee initiatives, guiding staff in their clinical advancement, managing our department budget, writing for our Magnet document, grant writing, reviewing data and statistics, planning varied events ranging from National Nurses Week to coordinating a group attendance at the annual Magnet Conference.
Have you ever felt like quitting?
I remember having difficult days, feeling overloaded and consumed by the workload but never saw myself being anything other than a nurse. However busy or overwhelmed, I strive to maintain composure and humor. You can always find the best of humanity in simple things even on the worst days – a connection with a patient, a visitor, a colleague, a student. That keeps me centered.
If you could wave a magic wand and have one thing change in nursing, what would it be?
I would like to see nursing advance alongside other disciplines to higher levels of education. We are one of the most trusted professions but often are divided on issues such as entry into practice. We must keep pace with the increasingly complex needs of our patients and adapt to the changing healthcare environment. I think it is important for nurses to become involved as active participants in healthcare reform to ensure we maintain the patient as the center of care and maintain the values and essence of nursing.
What advice would you give to a nursing student applicant?
I would recommend nursing school applicants to look for a school whose philosophy blends with their own. I would encourage them to achieve their BSN and consider creating a plan to return to school to advance their education further.
How would you describe the first year of nursing school to them?
The first year of school is an adjustment. You need to keep focus on your work and adapt to working more autonomously, as an adult learner. Keep a balance of work, fun and rest. Believe in yourself and what you can achieve & you will achieve it. Envision success.
Many student nurses say it is a very stressful time in their lives. How would you advise them in terms of minimizing the stress?
Stress is a normal part of any transition. Recognize your sources of stress; they are different for everyone, then develop strategies to minimize the stressors within your control. Seek out sources of support in family, friends and faculty. Stay positive and look for the bright side.
What helpful words can you offer on how they might choose their specialty?
As you progress through your clinical rotations, you will find your niche. Your specialty will find you, it will be a clinical area that challenges you and ignites your passion for nursing.
If someone said they wanted a career just like yours, how would you respond?
I would encourage that person to follow that direction but to forge their own unique path. There are so many opportunities in nursing and ways to make each role your own. Focus your mind and spirit on your professional goal. As a nurse educator or professional development specialist you can affect the care and outcomes of countless patients, all because you instill knowledge within and influence the practice of the nurses you teach. You can be the difference!
Subscribe to EveryNurse
Useful tips, advice, and inspiration for nurses. Sent twice a month. You can unsubscribe at any time.