Gwendolyn Childs, PhD, RN, FAAN, is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Undergraduate and Prelicensure Education. Her research focuses on approaches for reducing the risks of sexually transmitted infections in adolescent African American girls with an emphasis on sexual decision-making and risk-taking among African American girls ages 12 to 14 years living in the Deep South region of the U.S.
Q: What led you to pursue a career in nursing?
I was actually torn between being a nurse and a teacher when I was in high school. One of my friends and I had got volunteer jobs as a candy striper at a local hospital, and silly me, I thought that was what nurses did. That’s basically how I decided to go with nursing instead of teaching, and of course when I got into my first semester of nursing school, I realized “No, that is not what they do.” My first clinical rotation was an eye opener but I fell in love with it.
I realized that I wanted to work with children during my pediatric clinical rotation. My first pediatric patient was an 8 year old girl who had been hit by a car when she was riding a bike. She had a broken femur and was in traction. The nurses warned me that she was a brat and wouldn’t take her meds. But when I talked to her, we connected over the cartoons she watched, and I was able to get her to take her meds without any problems.
At that time, I applied for a student nurse technician position at a hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. During my interview with the nurse manager on the pediatric nurse unit, she said the position was for night shift on Saturday and Sunday and was non-negotiable. I had an 8:00 a.m. class on Mondays. I attended Lander University located in Greenwood, South Carolina, which was a 90-minute drive from Columbia. So, it was not possible for me to work night shift on Sundays and get to class on-time. When I went back to the nurse recruiter’s office, I was in tears because I thought my dream of working with children would not come true. Then he said there was a position in the Neonatal ICU. I met with the nurse manager, Cindy. who gave me a tour of the unit. As we toured the unit, I could not believe how tiny the babies were and how many were on ventilators. Up to this point, I had only seen healthy babies. I wanted to learn more about these babies and working in the Neonatal ICU. Cindy offered me the position with flexible hours and I accepted.
My job was to stock the bedsides. I took advantage of every opportunity to talk to the nurses about working in the unit and the different diagnoses of the patients. This was pre-HIPPA so you could ask those questions. After several months of working in the unit, Cindy offered me a job after I graduated, and I accepted it without hesitation. I absolutely loved it, and I loved taking care of the babies and talking to their parents. The best days were when the babies were well enough to go home. The hard days were when I sat with parents as their baby passed away. Regardless of the day, I loved being a neonatal nurse.
Q: How did your career develop and eventually lead to pursuing your Masters and PhD? Were there any individuals or experiences that inspired you to take those steps?
I stayed at the Neonatal ICU in Columbia, SC for about a year and a half. I had gained a lot of experience caring for babies with chronic conditions. I wanted to become a neonatal transport nurse but I need experience caring for critically ill babies. That led me to apply for a nurse position in the Neonatal ICU at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG). I worked in the Neonatal ICU at MCG for almost 11 years during which time I became a neonatal transport nurse.
MCG is a teaching hospital (now known as Augusta University). So, I had the opportunity to teach nursing students who had clinical observation experiences in the neonatal ICU. I realized that I really enjoyed teaching the students. This led me to earn a master’s degree in parent-child nursing with a functional role in teaching. As part of my graduate education, I completed two courses that included teaching practicums, and I realized ”This is what I want to do.” I always tell people that I am blessed because I found two niches in life that I love.
Q: What led you to get a PhD?
It was never something on my list. I had looked at some of the research my colleagues were doing, and I couldn’t understand how it was relevant because it didn’t seem to fit into my “teaching” world. We hired a new dean, and one of her goals was for faculty to earn their doctorate. I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to practice, or stay in academia. I decided I wanted to stay in academia but the question now was “What am I going to research?”
One of my colleagues had formed a health disparities’ work group and invited me to attend a meeting. During the meeting, I listened as each person discussed their research. The topic that piqued my interest was HIV specifically HIV among African Americans. I remember thinking, “If this is a problem affecting Black people why don’t we know this?”
After the meeting, I went to the CDC website for HIV and AIDS. When I saw the numbers of African American women who were affected by HIV through heterosexual contact, I was shocked that more people didn’t know about this problem. I also saw that the numbers were worse in the South. I had lots of questions about educating African Americans about HIV and AIDS; so, I talked to my colleague, a pediatric primary care nurse practitioner engaged in HIV research involving children, and she said, “You know you can do something about this—through research.” I asked myself, “Where are the African American researchers? Why aren’t they looking at this?” And I realized it’s because there weren’t very many of us out there, especially in the South. And that was the turning point for me. I found my focus.
The thing that I learned in doing my research is it’s not just the adolescents who need information on sexual health and decision making. Their parents need information as well. A lot of parents don’t know what to say to their adolescent other than, “Don’t get pregnant” or “Don’t get someone pregnant.” The expectation is for parents to educate their children about safer sex practices, pregnancy, STDs, and HIV; but these expectations are unrealistic especially about HIV education. There are so many misconceptions about HIV including risk factors, mode of transmission, and treatment. How can we expect a parent to differentiate between facts and misconceptions without educating them on the topic? Parents and adolescents need to have accurate information.
Q: In addition to your role at the UAB School of Nursing, you are an associate scientist with the Minority Health and Research Center and Center for AIDS Research, a member of the editorial board for the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, and other organizations. Why is it important to stay involved in these organizations, and how does it help you make a greater difference in the community?
We call these our professional home. My professional home is the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care (ANAC), where I served as a national board member for six years. That group allows me to keep up with what is happening in HIV research and clinical practice. It also provides me the opportunity to network with other HIV prevention researchers and mentor new researchers and new clinicians.
I also do a lot of informal things in the community. Through the connections I’ve made, people contact me about talking to groups for young girls about sex or the risks of HIV. I try to keep those doors open because even though time goes by, the issues are still the same—they need someone to talk to, they need someone to listen, they need someone to explain things in a way they can understand without condemnation and being judgmental.
Q: As Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Prelicensure Education, what are your goals for the School’s undergraduate program? How do you see this as a way to support faculty and students?
The goals that I came into this position with have totally changed because of COVID. Now, my goals are really focused on trying to build resiliency among the students as well as the faculty, and identifying the best strategies to do this. We are also looking at going through our curriculum and seeing how we are addressing DEI issues in terms of health disparities, how are we communicating that information to the students, and how are we communicating with students about health equity.
Q: What advice would you give to a student considering a career in nursing?
Be open to the possibilities. Look into yourself to find out who you are and the type of nurse you want to be. When I talk to students in orientation for the School of Nursing, I talk about a patient who, even 12 years later, the mother still remembered me because I always took the time to talk with and listen to her. You need to know who you want to be for your patients because once you clock in, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about your patients.