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Nurses with a purpose

Two Harpeth Hall alumnae, Ann Randolph McKenzie ’12 and Ellie Osteen Garstin ’14, returned to campus to care for all of us in a year when their work was more important than ever.

The night that Rachael McKenzie Nusbaum ’08 slipped on a stretch of clear liquid at a college party, she didn’t think much of it. Her feet came out from under her, and she landed on her back. Yes, she was in pain, but she chalked it up to the fall. Nothing that a few Benadryl and some sleep couldn’t cure. As she got ready for bed later that night, she took a shower. That’s when she saw her backside — black and charred from her shoulders down past her waist. The subsubstance she slipped on was floor stripper. She had suffered a severe chemical burn.

“She could have died,” her sister, Harpeth Hall nurse Ann Randolph McKenzie ’12, said. “And that was really scary.” Ms. Nusbaum spent two weeks in the hospital — one in Athens, Georgia, and another at Vanderbilt in Nashville — and then transitioned home.

For the next weeks and months, Ms. McKenzie who was in high school then, worked alongside her mom to treat her sister’s burns. She used washcloths to clean her sister’s back, delicately rubbing separate cloths on each area to avoid the spread of infection. She applied ointment underneath gauze pads. She cut the skin that peeled away as it healed.

She also did so much more.

“She held my hand the first time I asked to see my back — the severity of my burns,” Ms. Nusbaum said. “She held my hand as I turned to the mirror. She held my hand as I cried— in horror and disbelief — that this was my new reality. That the stranger in the mirror was me. She held my hand as I sobbed for what I thought I had lost.

“I’ll never forget those precious moments that she looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is just a scar. It doesn't define or change who you are. I’m here.’ ”

That experience set Ms. McKenzie’s future path to becoming a nurse. “I saw what she was going through, and I told myself you have

got to stay strong,” Ms. McKenzie said. “Once she got hurt, I realized this is something I want to do and something I can do — take care of other people.”

Nearly a decade later, in Fall 2020, Ms. McKenzie returned to her alma mater as a nurse. This year, she has cared for others who, like her sister, truly needed her.

“Harpeth Hall really prepared me,” she said. “It challenged me. It taught me a lot, especially about being a female and speaking up for myself. So I wanted to come back and be a support to the school that supported me growing up.”

It was her sister’s injury that moved Ms. McKenzie to be a nurse — and it was Winterim that helped shape that career path. Ms. McKenzie interned in Vanderbilt’s burn unit her junior year. She became the first student to work in the unit, with Harpeth Hall facilitating that opportunity because of how important it was to her personal experience. At Vanderbilt, Ms. McKenzie shadowed a child life specialist, a nurse, a physical therapist, and others.

“That experience solidified me wanting to be a nurse,” Ms. McKenzie said.

After graduating from Harpeth Hall and University of Tennessee nursing school, Ms. McKenzie returned to work in the Vanderbilt burn unit full time. There, she learned that injury often extends beyond the physical and that wellness means more than a healthy body.

“There’s so much more to nursing than giving meds and treating a cut,” she said. “Nursing is about being an advocate and a caretaker. You have to consider a person’s emotional needs, their mental needs, their spiritual needs. All of those factors make up a person, and you need to get that overall picture when caring for someone so you can give them the best care possible.”

When she joined Harpeth Hall as the school nurse in 2020, Ms. McKenzie became an advocate for students. With the pandemic at the forefront of all health and safety decisions, she navigated policies, quarantine periods, and communication with parents and students.

Ms. McKenzie confidently guided everyone she worked with, serving as a solid and steady source of support. “It was a difficult year for everyone,” Ms. McKenzie said. “It’s been a journey.”

But that journey has been part of shaping who she is as a caregiver. Whether it’s her sister or a student, Ms. McKenzie wants the same outcome.

“If someone is in pain or hurting,” she said, “I want them not to go through that.”

As a teenager, Ellie Osteen Garstin ’14 felt drawn to mission work. She built houses on an Apache Nation reservation in San Carlos, Arizona, and painted schools in New Orleans as part of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in the still-neglected areas almost a decade after the storm.

Most memorable, though, was her trip to Jamaica where she connected with the little boys and girls at a school for students who are deaf. While her mission group freshened classrooms in disrepair, it was the time spent with the kids that left the biggest impression.

“All they wanted to do was play and have a friend,” Ms. Garstin said.

That relationship building — and care for others in need — became the cornerstone of her future. Even as a high school student, Ms. Garstin knew she wanted to become a nurse. It was Harpeth Hall science teacher Lisa Keen’s anatomy and physiology class that opened Ms. Garstin’s eyes to the possibilities.

As a student, she wasn’t grossed out by the organs and blood vessels she learned about. “I was so intrigued,” she said. “I started wondering, ‘Why doesn’t everyone know this?’ It’s our own bodies. We should know how they function. That’s what sparked my interest in nursing.”

After graduating from high school, receiving her nursing degree from the University of Tennessee, and caring for patients at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital, Ms. Garstin brought that interest back to Harpeth Hall. She returned during a time of the school’s greatest health need — the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From the beginning, the nurse-patient relationship was most important to me,” Ms. Garstin said. “And that’s what drew me to Harpeth Hall, knowing I would get to spend time with the girls.”

Working in a school during a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. Ms. Garstin had to be responsive to the continually changing guidance of the state and local health departments as new information about the disease brought new understanding and protocols. She needed to be the ever-present communication link to parents who had questions about quarantines and contact tracing. And she needed to serve as a trusted adult for the students who came to her seeking care and support.

Ms. Garstin was all of those things and more.

So much of her kind and disarming demeanor and her steadiness under pressure developed during her time as a nurse at Saint Thomas West. Before she joined Harpeth Hall, Ms. Garstin worked in the pulmonary unit caring for individuals with lung cancer and acute chronic lung diseases.

These individuals were often facing the hardest times of their lives. They spent weeks in the hospital, not hours. Ms. Garstin took care to develop relationships with those she treated, to get to know them as people, not just patients.

“What I loved the most working as a bedside nurse was having that same patient day after day,” she said. “Getting to know them as a person and seeing them improve and recover and getting to send them home. That was honestly the best. Seeing that smile on their face as we said goodbye.”

She also experienced some more difficult departures. When COVID emerged in the United States in 2020, the pulmonary floor of her hospital was one of the first to be turned into a COVID unit. One of Ms. Garstin’s first duties in those initial weeks was to conduct COVID tests for patients.

“Unfortunately, the whole nation was so unprepared to face this virus,” she said. “We had so many questions. As Healthcare employees, we were learning new information every day from the CDC. Everything changed so rapidly. I can’t even imagine how those patients felt being the first ones to have the virus.”

One particular patient’s experience sticks with Ms. Garstin even now. He came in as an otherwise healthy 40-something-year-old male with a cough. That turned into difficulty breathing and then to a trip to the ICU to be intubated.

“I wheeled him out three weeks later, and you could see what the virus had done to him,” Ms. Garstin said.

When Ms. Garstin joined Harpeth Hall as a nurse only a few months later, she knew the seriousness of the disease and committed to doing everything she could to keep the students and faculty healthy, safe, and supported.

For her, the experiences of this past year — the Nashville tornadoes, the pandemic, the focus on racial injustice, the Christmas Day bombing — all underscore the importance of community.

“When I think of community, I think of being kind to whomever you interact with because you never know what they are going through at that time,” she said. “That’s really important for all we have faced this year. We need to empathize with one another, to lean on each other, and have each other for strength. That’s what really makes a difference.”