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Faculty-student team studies aftermath of war for military nurses

April 20, 2012
 Cheryl Lapp
Cheryl Lapp
EAU CLAIRE — Nurses returning to civilian life after serving in military conflicts struggle in their personal and professional lives, according to research by University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire nursing faculty and students.

Amidst the joyous celebrations of military homecomings, many U.S. military nurses have found that war "followed them home,"Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing, said of findings from a research project she collaborated on with four UW-Eau Claire nursing students.

The research team focused on the process of re-entry into civilian life for nurses who have recently served in combat or near-combat situations in active war zones.The study, "Coming Home: The Aftermath of War for Military Nurses," specifically explores the coming home experience for these nurses, Lapp said.

The student researchers included Emily Skurla of Duluth, Minn., Allison Quinn of Plymouth, Minn., and Heather Nichols of Pittsville. All three nursing majors have now graduated. Skurla and Quinn graduated in 2010, and Nichols in 2009.

Phillip James Seep II, who explored resilience in nurses who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a scholarly project for his master's degree, also assisted with the research. Seep now works at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

"It was great being involved in a research project at the university," Quinn said. "I got to delve into an interesting subject that I knew nothing about."

Researchers interviewed nurses who had recently returned from serving at least one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those interviewed included flight nurses, trauma nurses and surgical or intensive care nurses ranging in age from their late 20s to mid-50s.

Their research revealed major stressors of re-entry for the nurses and identified coping strategies the nurses used while re-adjusting to life and work on the home front.

Re-entry stressors were highly apparent in the subjects' professional and personal lives, Lapp said. Nurses interviewed for the research project said when returning to their former workplaces they had to catch up on new developments, yet they said the experience felt like going from "100 mph down to 25 mph."

One nurse described returning to family life as a "crash landing," researchers said.

Nurses came home with a different perspective about what was important to them, the researchers found. As one newly returned nurse noted, "People complain about things that really don't matter to me at all." Another nurse described an overwhelming shopping experience, saying "I had to turn around and walk out because there were too many choices."

Lapp said the study was inspired by the historical contributions of nurses in times of war, dating from the beginnings of modern nursing with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Lapp and her students viewed the documentary "Vietnam Nurses," narrated by actress Dana Delaney, who won two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of nurse Colleen McMurphy in the television drama "China Beach," which aired from 1988-91. The research team found that the effects of war on the Vietnam nurses were significant and long-lasting.

Lapp said she hopes that in the future military nurses will be even better prepared by their educators for the difficulties they must face and that they will know more about mental health and resilience after their duty.

Lapp said she would like family members and co-workers to learn from what is known about the coming home experience for nurses.

"I hope that family and co-workers can be more informed about the importance of taking the time to be understanding and helpful in the re-adjustment process," Lapp said, noting that one nurse who was interviewed said coming home "was like coming back to a merry-go-round and trying to figure out, 'Where do I jump on? How do I get back on this?'"

In the future, Lapp hopes to continue the research to better determine if appropriate resources are in place to help nurses restore their mental well-being and resilience after a tour of duty and to determine how multiple tours of duty can change a person's world.

"We need to find better ways of helping individuals and families find their own 'new normal' in the aftermath of war," Lapp said.

For more information about the research findings, contact Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing, at 715-836-5629 or lappca@uwec.edu.

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CC/JB/DW

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