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Dorrie Fontaine

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Empowering Those who Care for Others: Innate Compassion Training

This retreat takes place October 31, 2015 to November 1, 2015. Click for more  details.

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Dorrie Fontaine
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“Nurses are the flames of every hospital; they burn with passion for their patients.” -Katelyn Smith Neil

From the first moment you meet Dean Dorrie Fontaine, you realize that she is not the traditional dean, ensconced in her office at a safe distance from students; she is deeply hands-on and involved with her students’ well-being. “I don’t want to be a dean that welcomes them at orientation and shakes their hand at graduation,” says Fontaine.

After a transformational experience at the Upaya Zen center funded through the generosity of Tussi Kluge, Dean Fontaine was inspired to explore how the healthcare system could be transformed through using mindfulness practices to develop nurse’s resiliency and empathy. The program, called the Compassionate Care Initiative, has become the cornerstone of Dean Fontaine’s work.

Because she believes that “compassion isn’t just something you’re born with but something you can nurture and teach,” Dean Fontaine leads her students through a variety of exercises which support nursing students in the development of empathetic listening and the skill to be present with patients in their pain. Nursing students find “that patients are often terrified, feel alone, and that easing their worry is sometimes what’s most critical.” For Dean Fontaine, much of this work is centered around re-conceptualizing the healthcare system as one based on compassion.

“A compassionate system is one in which the needs of the group that it serves are a foremost priority,” she explains. “For example, a compassionate hospital would put the needs of the patient foremost. So, instead of doing a chest x-ray in the middle of the night at 3 AM so that it is ready for the physicians to look at on-rounds, they would do it late in the evening or in the afternoon to ensure the patient is able to sleep.”

In realizing her vision of a compassionate healthcare system, Dean Fontaine’s particular insight lies in focusing on individual healthcare providers rather than the entirety of the healthcare system, because “a system is really the people—we can make a better system based upon people who are welcoming and kind.” And that’s what the School nurtures in its nurses-to-be.

But beyond encouraging empathy and compassion for their patients, the Compassionate Care Initiative also develops nursing students’ own sense of resiliency. Dean Fontaine explains that “we’re inviting students to really look at the context in which care is delivered—and they are that context.” Nursing students are invited to participate in yoga and mindfulness practices, retreats, to learn about therapeutic massage and meditation to ensure that while nurses are taking care of patients, they are also taking care of themselves. While some may initially feel hesitant about such unfamiliar practices, Dean Fontaine explains that they quickly found benefit in integrating these practices with their own philosophical and spiritual beliefs.

“I think mindfulness is really what we’re creating,” she says. “It might be embedded in a Buddhist tradition, but we’re teaching it as a practice that is accessible to everyone regardless of their religion.”

In order to support nursing students while they develop empathy and compassion for both their patients and themselves, Dean Fontaine urges her students to remain introspective—to write about their feelings and reflect on the difficult, emotionally draining experiences they witness. BSN `13 graduate Monika Criman compiled a selection of nursing students’ writings into a book titled This Journal Belongs to a Nursing Student. Through poetic passages and moving images, these selections demonstrate the profound resiliency, emotional strength, and sense of purpose Dean Fontaine nurtures within her students and, through them, the transforming healthcare system itself.