Jean Baruch is a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology. While taking care of seriously ill children, she recognized the need for a better way to acknowledge the strength and bravery of the young patients in her care. As a result, Jean founded Beads of Courage, a nonprofit organization that uses colorful beads as meaningful symbols of courage to commemorate milestones children achieve along their unique treatment paths.
Now in its 10th year, the Beads of Courage program currently serves 30,000 children in more than 150 hospitals in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and New Zealand. Jean has received numerous awards for her work, including a 2012 Healthcare Heroes award presented by the Phoenix Business Journal. For more information on Beads of Courage or to make a donation, visit www.beadsofcourage.org.
Q. You’re not only a nurse, but the Founder and Executive Director of Beads of Courage. Going back to your childhood, did you always know that you wanted to be a nurse?
A. I knew I wanted to be in the caring professions* as a child, but it wasn’t until I got into my coursework that I recognized the value of nursing as a profession. Originally, I was going to go to medical school. But, overall, the health professions and the caring professions were something that I wanted to get into.
Q. Was that driven by a desire to help people or to do something meaningful with your life?
A. Yes. An amazing moment happened for me when I was in nursing school. One of the assignments we had was to answer, “Why do you want to be a nurse and why do you want to go into the field of nursing that you’re interested in?” At that moment, I recalled a very powerful childhood memory that I would say was dormant for at least 15 years. I had a childhood friend that died of cancer, but I hadn’t thought of him until that moment. They always say that your experiences shape who you are and what you do. I was very close to him and, back then, in the 1970s, when I was in kindergarten, kids died then. It was a death sentence when you were diagnosed with cancer. It’s amazing to think that one friend, when I was five years old, has shaped my entire career.
Q. It makes you wonder how many people go into professions without even realizing what prompted them to get into that specialty or that field.
A. Exactly. I hadn’t thought of Miles until that assignment in college, sitting down and thinking about why I wanted to go into pediatric oncology, and it all came flooding back.
Q. The field of pediatric oncology is such an emotional and difficult area for nurses to specialize in. What strengths or traits do you have that allowed you to work in an area of nursing that can be very distressing?
A. I’m the youngest of six kids and I think having a strong foundation in family and a love for children is my rock that helped me bear witness to the struggles that these kids and families face.
Q. Tell me about some of your early experiences as a pediatric oncology nurse and how that led to what you’re doing now with Beads of Courage.
A. I have a saying that I use with our core team and that I personally believe, and it’s “life in full circle” – always being aware and mindful of experiences that you have. You’re having them for a reason. It’s not coincidental. Working as an oncology nurse in Tucson, I quickly was aware that I’m only tending to the physical needs of these kids. I should be doing more, but what does ‘more’ look like? I was looking for strategies or interventions that would support their emotional needs. What could I do, as a nurse, that would be a meaningful, caring exchange to help them cope with their treatments? It was really just recognizing, in the day-to-day grind, that I wasn’t saying or doing enough to address the worries and anxieties that children and their families have.
Q. I’ve heard you talk about giving kids stickers, as most nurses do, and how you came to the realization that stickers just weren’t enough.
A. Any nurse, whether a pediatric or adult nurse, will tell you, when you’re nursing, when you’re caring – and I use those synonymously because nursing is caring for others – you have a compelling need to give the patients that you’re caring for something tangible. It’s not a reward. It’s just to acknowledge that I just witnessed what you went through. I think that has roots deep in human nature. We give gifts. That’s what makes us human, and we give gifts to honor the other person. In pediatrics, indeed, typically that’s a sticker, and nurses hope that the volunteers or donors have provided recent stickers to give your patients that say, “Wow, what you did was amazing. I want to recognize that courage in you with this sticker.” With Beads of Courage, what we find is that it’s not disposable like a sticker. It’s something that’s long lasting and tangible.
Q. Did the pilot program for Beads of Courage start in the pediatric oncology unit where you were working at the time?
A. It actually started at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. I think that’s one thing that I’m seeing in nursing and I hope is more of an overall trend in education, and that is leadership. People aren’t apt to look at what leadership is and what leadership skills are, but those are qualities that I’ve learned over the years of being mentored by other leaders. It’s in the moment when you require your leadership to make things happen that you’re aware of what you’re able to achieve.
I was not able to implement Beads of Courage at the hospital I worked at in Tucson for various reasons, but it was my leadership that said, “Okay, if you’re going to say no, I’m going to go somewhere else.” Phoenix Children’s Hospital was the next logical choice since I lived in Arizona. Fortunately, I met another leader who was the Director of Psychosocial Services at the time, who recognized what I was trying to do and did not hesitate to approve the pilot program there.
Q. You went back to school to obtain a PhD. Why did you feel that was important? For students that might be looking at going into nursing, is an advanced degree always necessary? What about nurses with an associate degree who are primarily interested in providing bedside care?
A. That’s a great question and nursing leaders will respond differently because it’s also a highly politically charged question. Nursing, as a discipline, has multiple entries into practice. I personally believe that has a negative impact on patients who are cared for by nurses. You, as a patient, may or may not recognize that the person caring for you has an associate degree versus a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Certainly, in any field, more education translates into advancing the science and practice of that field.
I get very sensitive when I’m asked, on a regular basis, “Are you still a nurse?” Of course I’m still a nurse. I practice community-based nursing. I have a patient load of 30,000 patients that depend on my ability to make sure that beads get to the front lines of these hospitals to support patients in their treatment journey. I’m always an advocate of more education, but it may sometimes be in a different field, depending on your area of expertise and moving forward in whatever you’re passionate about. I’ve known nurses who have gone back and gotten a Master’s in Public Health because, as a nurse, they were passionate about public health issues. Personally, I would love to get more into anthropology, because my work is about the caring of humans and how we use objects to impart that.
Q. What career advice would you offer for someone looking to go into nursing as a profession?
A. In terms of career advice, seek out mentors. Youth in general have this mentality of ‘I’ll figure it out on my own’ or ‘I know it all.’ I think that’s one unfortunate occurrence with online education – advanced education – is that you miss out so much on the apprenticeship of working side by side with a mentor in your field. You learn their ways and you see their ways; you hear how they talk; you see how they manage stress.
When I was told “no” at UMC, the first person I went to was one of my nursing professors, who I admired and who I’d seen achieve great things for nursing. I said, “What should I do?” and her advice – and it always rings true for me – was, “Jean, if something feels upstream, it’s upstream. Go where the flow is downstream.” Why go upstream? In my current work as Executive Director for Beads of Courage, we have opportunities that come to the table on a regular basis and, if it feels upstream at all, I say, “It’s upstream and it shouldn’t be upstream.” It should be a creative, dynamic process that flows downstream.
Q. That advice seems to be working for you. Talk a little bit about how Beads of Courage has grown and where the organization is right now.
A. 2013 marks our 10th year since the first program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital was piloted in 2003. We’ve experienced tremendous growth, but, most importantly, we’ve experienced demand for our work, which drives the growth and serves as evidence that what we do really matters. At the front lines of caring for children coping with serious illness, there is a need for an art-based program like Beads of Courage that supports the coping and overall quality of life of children.
* The Oxford Dictionary defines a caring profession as “a job that involves looking after other people, such as nursing, teaching, or social work.”