It is a truly unexpected and charming moment for a writer when the expert being interviewed – a medical pioneer who has literally made history – pauses the conversation and excitedly says, “Now, let me tell YOU about a pioneer!” It’s remarkable, to say the least. The next thing you know, you’ve added the words “very humble” to your notepad.
So went the discussion with Dr. Mary Beth Koslap-Petraco, DNP, PNP-BC, CPNP, FAANP, whose astonishing list of accomplishments, distinguished honors, and awards cannot be covered in a single article. Dr. Mary’s passion is children. In fact, her entire professional career has been dedicated to creating and implementing programs and procedures which strive to ensure each child receives the absolute best healthcare possible. Continue reading below to learn more about how she has touched the lives of thousands of children.
Awards & Achievements
Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Public Health Nurse
Preceptor and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University School of Nursing
Faculty Member at Med Learning Group
Adjunct Professor II at Long Island University Post
2015 NAPNAP Immunization Special Interest Group Bill Atkinson Award for Immunization Advocacy
2014 American Association of Nurse Practitioners Excellence in Advocacy Award for New York State
2012 Nurse Practitioner Association of New York State Nurse Practitioner of the Year
Fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (FAANP)
2010 American Nurses' Association Immunity Award Nurses’ Association
2010 American Heart Association Emergency Cardiovascular Care 20 Year Instructor Award
2009 Bellevue Alumnae Association Distinguished Alumni Award
2008 Merck Pharmaceuticals Vaccine Champion Award for Promoting Immunizations Among Adolescents
2007 Stony Brook University School of Nursing Alumni of Distinction Award
2006 National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP) Henry K. Silver Award
2006 National Network of Immunization Nurses and Associates Distinction Award
2002 Nurse Practitioner Association of Long Island Nurse Practitioner of the Year
Held 24 Elected and Appointed Positions in Professional Organizations and Societies
Developed and Implemented 19 Educational Projects and Programs (some of which are ongoing)
Holds 4 National Certifications
Has held 22 Legislative and Public Policy Roles and Positions
Interview - Question & Answer
You have been nursing since 1969! That's 47 years! How did your career begin?
Well, you know I am a Diploma Graduate from Bellevue. Bellevue was the first nursing program in the United States based on the Nightingale Plan; which was the first true nursing program focusing on the medical science available at that time. It is quite an honor to be a Bellevue graduate. All of what I do reflects on what I learned and the absolutely creative, forward-thinking women who educated and taught me.
Did your career unfold naturally or did you have a specific plan and follow it?
Honestly, it kind of unfolded. I’ve always been passionate about what I do; I love what I do. I could retire tomorrow if I wanted to, but I’m here because I like what I do and I like the people I work with. The people I work with are the most passionate, dedicated people I think I’ve ever been blessed to work with. They care about the public, they care about the health of the public.
Tell us a bit about your personal history…
I didn’t come from a family of nurses, or the medical professionals. My grandmother had diabetes when I was a little girl and I used to watch her get the insulin shots. We were really very poor when I was little; we lived in a tenement in Hastings, New York.
Probably the biggest influence on me was the Public Health Nurse who used to come to teach my mother about my younger sister. I was just absolutely in awe of Miss Lee. She came in her navy-blue uniform with her little blue hat and she’d put all her things out and then put her little white apron on. I would sit there and say, “I want to grow up and be just like Miss Lee.” It didn’t faze me at the time that Miss Lee was Black. But as I grew older I was even more in awe of her and admired her more; to have a Black nurse with a bachelor’s degree in the early 1950’s was mind boggling to me. I never knew what her first name was, but I can picture her in my mind. She was tall and thin, and she was absolutely beautiful. And I remember sitting there at the enamel kitchen table with my hands underneath my chin watching absolutely everything she did and saying to myself over and over, “I want to grow up to be just like Miss Lee.”
Isn't that a testament to how one person can touch the lives of so many? She inspired you, and now you have changed the lives of thousands upon thousands of children…
That is very, very true. Like I said, we grew up very poor and it didn’t occur to me when I was young, or in high school, not even in nursing school how amazing this woman was – that she was a pioneer. I was only 3 or 4 years old when I first met Miss Lee and saw her until about the age of 5. We didn’t have the money to go to a private doctor in those days.
It wasn’t until I started to get involved in different issues and policies in nursing that I realized, “Oh my gosh! That woman had a bachelor’s degree!” In that era, a Black person, never mind a Black woman, had so few opportunities. Someone accepted her into a college of nursing program, and here she was serving White families! It boggled my mind. The whole neighborhood absolutely adored her. She would walk up and down the street with her black bag and everybody knew her. We’d see her when we were playing outdoors because children played in the streets in those days.
Did you ever try to find her in later years?
No, I didn’t know her first name – all I knew was Miss Lee.
I've read a lot about your work and correct me if I'm wrong… but it seems like you are on a mission for immunization programs for children. How did this mission begin?
Yes, it is a mission. It began when I started working for the Health Department. Actually, I’m old enough and I’m a diploma graduate. In diploma school we were actually taught vaccines. We had to know about every vaccine they had. Back then all they had was wholesale DPT, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. That was it. Part of our education was to learn about the vaccines, the side effects, why everybody needed to be vaccinated. We had to learn it. We gave shots as students at the Well-Child Clinic in Bellevue. Then it kind of fell off the radar screen after I graduated, because I was working in hospitals.
Was there anything else that motivated you?
When I started working for the health department, is when it became very important to me. My family has been very affected by vaccine preventable disease. My mother is 96 years old and she lives in a nursing home because she has Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS). I made the diagnosis. I tell you, the physicians were calling it everything under the sun. I said “No. Here’s the information; read it. She’s got Post-Polio Syndrome.” They finally agreed with me that it was PPS. But she can’t walk! She’s paralyzed, literally, on one side of her body. Her legs would stick straight out from the spasms from the polio she had when she was little. But she was able to learn to walk again. She had polio at three and said she didn’t really walk well until she was 6.
I can see how your mother's experiences ignited your passion for immunizations…
Also, my sister almost died of measles. When I became a Nurse Practitioner, that was at the time when the Clinton Administration was putting funding into providing vaccines for children who could not afford them. That’s the “Vaccines for Children” program. I had just gotten my master’s degree; I was about a year out of school. I was still working for the Suffolk County as a Public Health Nurse, but I wasn’t working as a Nurse Practitioner. Then the county got this grant from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that the state was administering. The Commissioner at the time knew I was reachable on the civil service list. She told me she was looking for a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and she said, “I know you can do this.” So, I was transferred into the program from the health centers.
What did that position consist of?
Using part of the grant money, I developed the Immunization Action Plan for Suffolk County. Part of that was being sent to take the “Pink Book Course.” The Pink Book Course is the epidemiology and virology course that the CDC gives for anyone working in immunizations. It was developed my very dear friend, colleague and also a mentor; Bill L. Atkinson, MD, MPH who has since retired from CDC.
Anyway, at the time they sent a whole bunch of New York State, County Public Health Nurses up to Albany and locked us in a hotel for 3 days with 3 doctors: Dr. Bill Atkinson,Dr. Walter Orenstein; who eventually became the director of what was called the National Immunization Program and is now called the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), and Dr. Raymond Strikas Dr. Strikas is still working at NCIRD – actually the only one still there of the three. We spent three days learning the Pink Book Program, but they didn’t call it the Pink Book course in those days.
It's hard to imagine a period in time when taking your child for immunizations was not the norm. You've almost been through the historical development of vaccinations—from unusual to commonplace!
Yes, I am kind of a dinosaur! I even call myself that when it comes to these things!
Are you still an online nurse who answers questions?
Oh yes! I serve as an online nurse for PKIDs which is Parents with Kids with Infectious Diseases. I also answer questions online forEvery Child by Two. I am on the Board for Every Child by Two and the Science Advisory Board.
I was reading an article that said you raised the Influenza Immunization Program at Suffolk County employee vaccination rate from less than 30% to more than 90%. Is that correct?
Yes, it is, and yes, we did! I think I was just the team leader. At the time the Health Department ran the Health Centers; and I managed to get all the nursing supervisors at the Health Centers on board. They saw this as a mission for themselves. They set up, in all their different health centers, the programs which worked best for them to get all their employees on site vaccinated, and to get it done quickly. It wasn’t even a question of “if” it was a question of “when.”
Did you decide immediately to specialize in pediatrics when you decided to become a Nurse Practitioner?
I went to school specifically to become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. I was working in the Health Department and most of my practice in the Health Department, in the Clinic was in pediatrics. I mean, I did see adults; and I asked myself if I wanted to do adult gerontology or did I want to do pediatrics? But pediatrics has always been the love of my life from the time I was in nursing school. In diploma school we were able to choose an area of specialization for extra clinical time, in those days. So, I chose pediatrics and the ER. Those were the 2 places I worked. I also did adult medicine; but my favorites were always pediatrics and the ER.
What happened when you moved to Suffolk County, New York?
I worked in the ER, and no one wanted to take care of the children who came into the ER. There was another nurse who was a peds specialist as well. Everybody would scurry away when the children came in; she and I would do all the children. We did them whether they were run of the mill things, acute care children or multiple traumas. We became the two peds nurses in the ER.
It seems as if medical professionals who prefer to work with children are a whole different breed than those who would rather work with adults. Would you say that was a fair statement?
Yes, we are a whole different breed. I saw that in the very beginning. We are a very different breed of people; we look at things very, very differently. I always came back to pediatrics. And now I’m peds and that is who I am, pediatrics.
What are some of the qualities you need to excel in pediatrics? Say for example, you were talking to someone considering become a Pediatric Nurse or a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. What would you tell them?
I am very glad you asked that question because it is becoming more and more difficult these days to get Pediatric Nurses. They get very little experience in pediatrics in their undergraduate program. I spent three months in pediatrics in Diploma School. They are lucky if they get three days in peds these days; they can’t tell if it’s something they’d like to do for a career. I think what I would tell a new graduate if they are looking at pediatrics; try to get a job in pediatrics. A lot of the bigger sectors will hire brand new graduates without any experience, and then they will educate them.
But I think that in order to go into peds, you first have to absolutely love children. If you don’t love children, I tell you, don’t bother. The children will know you don’t love them and they won’t want to have anything to do with you.
Any other qualities?
You need to have a sense of humor. You can’t be serious. You have to have a fun side to how you look at things. You also have to respect children as individuals. They’re not little big people.
I love that! They are not little big people…
No, they are not little big people! They are totally different. Even when I teach the students; with an adult you do a physical—one kind of physical. In pediatrics, you have to learn to do a newborn physical, an infant physical, a toddler physical, a pre-school physical, a school-age physical and an adolescent physical.
I think that you absolutely have to be in love with children, to do this. You have to be able to “get” the world through their eyes. They look at the world with very fresh eyes; they are constantly learning.
If someone told you they wanted to follow in your footsteps, what would you tell them?
Well actually, I am mentoring a couple of people with immunizations. One is a Nurse Practitioner and the other is an RN who is going for her MPH. What I’ve said to them is, again, love what you’re doing. Look at this as a mission, not a job. It is a mission.
What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?
I think that once you say there is nothing left for you to accomplish, it’s time to hang up your spurs. And I always feel like there’s something more, right around the corner that I can do that can help change a child’s life somewhere. I might not know exactly what it is, but I think it’s important to be open to any kind of new initiative or new opportunity that comes along that is going to make a difference in the life of a child.
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