Chris Williamitis: Veteran, nurse, educator, lifelong learner
Chris Williamitis has endured survival training in desert heat, 14-hour flights filled with wounded soldiers, multiple bachelor’s and master’s and doctoral programs and much more.
She’s been a:
- critical care nurse
- a flight nurse in the Air Force
- an expert in eating disorders
- a cardiac surgery nurse practitioner
- a doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
- a 2018 Brandman grad (B.A. in psychology, her second bachelor’s) while writing her dissertation for a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky
At first glance, it may be hard to see how all that fits together and culminates in her current roles as an assistant professor and dissertation chair for the Marybelle and S. Paul Musco School of Nursing and Health Professions at Brandman University.
“I love to learn,” Williamitis said.
Each piece along the way contributes to another. Her decision to be a nurse led to earning a master’s degree in nursing and the opportunity to teach. While teaching, she found herself enthralled by a student’s experiences as a flight nurse. That, combined with a family history of military service, led Williamitis to the Air Force.
Working with trauma patients as a flight nurse showed her the connection between physical pain and mental health issues and led to the DNP, where she focused on psychiatric nursing and eating disorders. And that, led to the Ph.D. focusing on predictors of stroke in valve surgery, sometimes caused by eating disorders.
“It all goes together. People with eating disorders have a lot of cardiac issues. If you don’t eat, your muscles waste, including your heart,” Williamitis explained.
What she’s learned
Her work as an Air Force flight nurse managing as many as 30 trauma patients with the help of one other nurse and three medical technicians also reinforced the value of being organized. It’s only by staying organized that she can juggle being a student, a teacher, a psychiatric nurse practitioner working with patients with eating disorders and an acute care nurse practitioner assistant in cardiac surgery. She is now working toward another master’s degree, this time in psychology with a marriage and family therapist emphasis at Brandman.
“Everything in the military is precise. They teach you to think about what could go wrong and to have an A, B and C plan. I teach that to my students. I learned a lot about putting a plan together. It’s great to have big ideas, but you have to figure out how to get there. The military taught me that,” Williamitis said.
It also gave her confidence in her ability to survive almost anything. “I was in survival school in Texas. I don’t know where we were. They wouldn’t tell us. It was 110 degrees, and we all thought we were going to die.”
By the time she and her classmates emerged from their month of survival isolation, 9/11 had changed everything. Suddenly, they were thrown into flying soldiers injured in Afghanistan, usually from Germany to the U.S.
“I loved it, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
It’s all challenging
The hardest trip, and the one that sticks with her still, was a plane full of victims from a helicopter crash. “They were young guys – maybe 20, 21 years old. They were in a lot of pain,” Williamitis said. “They told me, ‘Never get in a helicopter.’”
Flight nurses are trained and ranked as officers. “As soon as you go in, they expect you to be an officer. You have to be a leader. That can be hard if you’re not used to leading people. It’s a different world. You have to be strong. I think it’s hard for healthcare people, harder for us. We’re used to being nurturing, and you have to be a little tougher,” she said.
It took nearly 18 months before she felt comfortable managing a flight where she had to make sure everything was on time, properly loaded, configured to make sure there was enough oxygen, enough pain medication. “You literally take a cargo plane and turn it into a hospital. That’s a huge job.”
Veterans in the classroom
Although she sees fewer veterans in Brandman’s nursing program than she expected, Williamitis has rubbed virtual shoulders with fellow vets and active duty personnel through the classes she’s taken at Brandman to finish a bachelor’s degree in psychology and begin the MFT program.
“I think we (veterans) have a broad base of education, not only in the civilian world. In the military, you get a lot of specialized training in a lot of areas. We bring a lot of skills to the table. I could survive in the desert. Most people don’t know how to do that,” Williamitis said.
She admires the Brandman approach to education, in part because it matches her approach. “Brandman is excellent at teaching you how to teach yourself. It’s great for people who are busy and working. You have to be a self-starter. And almost everybody is an adult learner, so they have that trait. We have some great students.”
Williamitis continues her education so she can bring even more to her students. “My goal in becoming a therapist is to add all that into my classes.” Her broad range of education and a particularly memorable class on the philosophy of science taken in route to her doctorate, help her look at the world differently.
“I’m able to look at research more critically, and I think you can bring that to your patients and your students. It’s absolutely something that Brandman emphasizes as well.”
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