“This is the place that we live, we all want to feel safe and feel comfortable because this is our home. And one of the most important things [to feeling safe and comfortable] is health. Being able to give patients support or education on what to do to keep themselves and everybody safe in the community is really important. And that's how I feel connected to the people here.” — Wendy Curnow
For local nurse Wendy Curnow, nursing isn’t just a job or a paycheck, but something much more. Nursing provides her with a sense of purpose and community. On the surface, nursing entails technical skills such as taking someone's blood pressure or heart rate. On a deeper level, being a nurse is a commitment to community and the patients they serve; caring for their patients to the best of their ability, helping them live healthier lives. It is also the commitment through their position and knowledge that nurses educate and advocate for their patients in order to protect the health, safety, and rights of the whole community. As a nurse, Wendy is committed to doing all of the above for the well-being of her community. However, Wendy didn’t always know she wanted to be a nurse. Instead, it was during a time in her life when there were many unknowns, that she came to find this passion.
The only child of Chinese Malaysian immigrants, Wendy’s family moved from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe when she was only a year old. Living in a small, predominantly white community came with its challenges and Wendy had a hard time navigating her two worlds and cultures. Wendy said, “There wasn’t much diversity, particularly in regard to other Asian American families [where I grew up]. I had a few fellow Asian peers in high school, and we all knew each other because there were so few of us.” In that sense, it was hard for Wendy to find her place, feeling like she didn’t fit in with the white students, and although she was Asian, she didn’t quite fit in with her Asian peers either. This was something Wendy battled with throughout her youth.
In high school, Wendy began to think about the future. She knew that she wanted to go to college, but she didn’t know any specifics beyond that. All Wendy knew for certain was that she was ready for a change and wanted to leave her small town. Eventually, she decided on Sonoma State University (SSU) and during her first two years of college, she was unsure of what she wanted to do in the future, so she focused on her general education classes. Using this time to explore, Wendy dabbled in everything in the hopes of finding what piqued her interest for a future career.
During the Summer of her sophomore year of college, everything changed. Wendy went home to South Lake Tahoe to enjoy her summer break before entering her junior year. When she got home Wendy recalls her father encouraging her to get a job and do something productive with her summer. Her parents encouraged her to get a job at a bank. Everyone in her family was an accountant, but Wendy knew she didn’t want to do that, plus she was horrible at math. Her father owned a restaurant, so he offered for her to come work there, but Wendy knew that also was not for her. Coming from an Asian family, Wendy felt a lot of pressure to have everything figured out and was expected to stay on a certain path, getting her degree and a great job, her whole future mapped out for success. Yet, Wendy wanted to be able to show her parents she could take care of herself, plus having a little spending money wouldn’t hurt either, so she continued to search for something that felt right to her.
While on her search for a summer job, Wendy stumbled upon an opportunity that would define much of her future. There was an internship program at a local hospital that allowed students to shadow a nurse, which included a small stipend. In Wendy’s mind, she thought it was the perfect opportunity, “I could observe, learn, and get paid for it?!” It was an opportunity too good to turn down. Wendy applied and was accepted into the program. During her time at the hospital, she was able to observe different units, learn how to take blood pressure, and was allowed to assist with other smaller tasks. When Wendy applied to the program, she had no idea that she wanted to be in the healthcare field, but once she was in the thick of it, everything changed.
During her internship, Wendy was rotating between different units when she met a woman with a myriad of serious health issues, including the inability to speak. Wendy noticed the woman was fearful every time nurses came in the room the woman. The staff tried to explain what they were there to do, but it never seemed like the woman understood much; all you could see was fear. This woman’s extreme vulnerability really stuck with Wendy, “just seeing that fear, was just… very emotional.” Wendy noticed that the patient’s mouth would get very dry and asked a nurse if she could sit with the patient and swab her mouth, which was something done to comfort the patient. The nurse allowed Wendy to do this and although the woman was scared at first and unable to communicate, she realized Wendy was simply there to help make her more comfortable, with no tests, and no poking or prodding. From there, they eventually established a connection. “Eventually, I could tell that when I'd be there, she wouldn't get that look of fear. And I think that was the most kind of defining moment for me, where it was like, I think I could do this.” Upon Wendy’s return to SSU, she changed her major and began pursuing nursing.
Now, Wendy works as a Nurse at the Sutter Cardiology Clinic in Santa Rosa. Wendy notes that the pandemic has been an extremely challenging time, but also one that has made the connection between the healthcare field and community even stronger. At the start of the pandemic, Sutter was one of the first healthcare groups that started the vaccine clinic for Sonoma County at the Luther Burbank Center, and was not exclusive to Sutter patients, but open to everybody. The vaccine clinics are so much more than just community members receiving a vaccine, it’s an opportunity for greater conversations, education, and connection.
The community depends on healthcare workers and their knowledge more than ever, and the clinics have given them direct access to nurses to ask those important questions and concerns. “After [patients] get their injection, there’s a time frame where they have to sit and wait, just to make sure that they don't have any sort of allergic reaction or things like that. And that was actually a really cool time where they're just sitting there so we can start up a conversation. And, of course, if they have questions, we're able to talk about it and educate.” These clinics are an opportunity to enhance the health and safety of the community through education and vaccinations, and nurses like Wendy are critical to this mission.
For Wendy, the best thing about being a nurse is making a difference, “It’s been really rewarding, just to be able to know that I've made a difference in someone else's life, whether that be education, or just being there when they're scared or help guiding them through this system.” Someone who has inspired Wendy’s work and her love for caring for others is her mother. Growing up she saw her mother role model what it meant to be selfless, always caring for others, whether it be her own family or strangers. Her mother's love and compassion for others is something that Wendy has strived to emulate as well.
Thank you, Wendy for making Santa Rosa a healthier and happier place, one patient at a time.
Wendy Curnow was interviewed by Daniel Chaparro, Community Outreach Specialist, and Madelynn Cox, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA.