By Gary Redfern
Valley Women Writer
4:00 PM PST, February 22, 2011
Imagine that very first day of school when moms and dads must let their 4- and 5-year-olds take those first steps on the inevitable road to adulthood. The children may or may not want to run free into that classroom. Each child is different, though for the parents, it is never easy. There are hugs and kisses and one last check to make sure they’re settled in and, then the parents must leave, live their lives and let their child begin living his own — increasingly independent from them.
Now imagine that child has type 1 diabetes, needs an insulin pump and must have someone monitor every meal to keep the blood sugar’s delicate balance. Well, letting go then is just impossible, unless it is into skilled, caring hands. The mother of such a 5-year-old headed to kindergarten at Finley Elementary School in Holtville found just such an angel in school nurse Helina Hoyt, and what Hoyt gave would later come back to her in so many ways.
“I heard he was entering the school, so I called his mother,” Hoyt, a registered nurse, recalls of that conversation a few years back. “We planned ahead and did a good assessment. I had her teach me what he needed, and then we trained the teachers, the yard aids, even the other students.”
The goal was not just caring for the child but just letting him be a child.
“He didn’t want to be different. We told the children everybody’s different. You wear glasses? You’re different,” she says with a pleasing, confident smile.
That smile, that demeanor, inspires confidence, the knowledge someone is there to make everything right no matter the long-term outcome. For the Finley student, all turned out well. He is now a well-adjusted and active sixth grader. Making that kind of difference is why Hoyt became a nurse, though the traits allowing such skill may for her be innate.
“You look at my Halloween costumes when I was young. I was always a nurse,” admits Hoyt, whose varied career path has taken her from big-city trauma centers to her current position teaching nursing at San Diego State University, Imperial Valley Campus. “I like people. I always wanted to take care of people, especially sick people. It’s just a passion.”
Hoyt was raised in Holtville, one of three children of David and Carolyn Hilfiker. Her brother Sam stayed local and is in the farming business with their father, while her sister Heidi Gill moved away and lives in San Luis Obispo. In her career, Hoyt has found both wanderlust and a return to her roots.
The little dress-up nurse wasted no time turning that fantasy into reality. By age 16 she was in the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program’s nursing assistant course. By the time she graduated from Holtville High School a year later in 1991, she also had been a candy striper at El Centro Regional Medical Center and had completed a March of Dimes internship. Hoyt went to college at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles and, after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, became a registered nurse in 1995 at age 21 and hit the big time.
“I was one of only 14 in the U.S. to be picked to do a critical care internship at Parkland Hospital in Dallas,” she says proudly. “We only worked in the ICU (intensive care unit) and ER (emergency room). I was in the burn intensive care unit. I helped care for a six-week-old that was dipped in scalding water because it cried too much.”
Despite the action and prestige of the big city, the yearning for home became strong, as it does with many Imperial Valley residents who move away, and so Hoyt returned in 1997 after two years. She married her “high school sweetheart,” Shannon, and the couple has two children, Collin, 12, and Ella, 8.
Her first position back in Imperial Valley was as a charge nurse in the intensive care unit at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley. In 2000, Hoyt embarked on a path that would allow her to explore the many vocations of nursing and ways to parlay her skills and enthusiasm into innovations that could have an impact on the very foundations of the profession.
“I want nurses here to think more globally and see nursing beyond Imperial Valley,” Hoyt explains with urgency. “The push is for advanced-practice nurses to fill in the gap (due to the decline in primary-care physicians). Something we’re working on is more educated nurses and getting them the opportunity for advancement.”
Put plainly, she seeks to shatter the lingering myth that the nurse’s only duty is to assist doctors. Nursing, she insists, is an independent profession whose members team with other healthcare professionals to attain the best results for their patients. Outgoing, sharp and enthusiastic, Hoyt seems an ideal fit for the role of ambassador and iconoclast.
After leaving Pioneers, Hoyt earned her California school nurse credential, began working as a school nurse and started pursuing her master’s degree in community health at San Diego State in Calexico. Duty in the schools was especially fulfilling and enlightening as to the health problems unique to Imperial Valley, she recalls. It also was a job with ideal hours for a woman with young children.
“I liked being with the children and building relationships, the health promotion and problem solving. We had students in wheelchairs, students with catheters, and many children with emotional needs,” she says.
What many do not realize is in a county as large as Imperial, with a high rate of poverty and many new immigrants, schools become a front line in child health care. School personnel often are the first to assess children and are the most watchful eyes for chronic or acute health issues, physical, mental and social.
Yet after assisting the child with diabetes at Finley School, Hoyt’s attention was drawn abruptly homeward.
“My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes,” she explains, recalling the shock of that moment. “I’m a nurse and I know how to give shots, but with my son I’m not a nurse, I’m a mom. When it’s your child, it’s different.”
If that were not enough, just about two years later, in 2007, Hoyt was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She got the call on a Friday afternoon. That Monday morning she was on the operating table.
“They kept telling me it’s the best kind of cancer to have. But it’s cancer,” Hoyt says.
The cancer was perhaps a validation of her life’s path. Her family and friends were there for her, and she again witnessed firsthand the difference skilled and motivated caregivers can make.
“I had to call one of my best friends and ask her, ‘I’m having cancer surgery. Can you watch my son overnight?’ She had to give him insulin injections. I realized what great friends and family I have,” Hoyt adds.
Recovering from cancer she had plenty of time to think, spending 11 days in isolation because the radioactive iodine treatment literally made her radioactive and a danger to others. That fear, that separation, that dependency were emotions she had seen many times in others.
“You’re at the mercy of those around you,” she explains, adding that she saw herself as a wife, mother and nursing professional, not a cancer patient, which is what others often notice first about people with that disease.
Asked how those personal experiences affected her, she muses, “I’m a much different nurse now than when I started. I’m more positive and have a much stronger faith.”
Ironically, when Hoyt was diagnosed with cancer she had left school nursing and just started as nursing coordinator for the R.N. to B.S. program at San Diego State in Calexico, which provides registered nurses a specialized path to earning a bachelor’s degree and a state public health nurse certificate, as well as exposing them to the eclectic career options in modern nursing. San Diego State offered the program in San Diego, but Hoyt was instrumental in launching it at the Imperial Valley Campus.
“We focus on having them learn hospital administration, chain of command issues, care of the critical care patient, research- and evidence-based practice and help them keep up with what’s current in nursing,” Hoyt says, explaining that because Imperial County does not have a large hospital or research facility, its healthcare professionals are at risk of not being current with changes and innovations.
Her charges, there are about 40 now in the program which has produced 19 graduates in about three years, get the full benefit of their mentor’s wide experiences. There are field trips to key lectures in San Diego and visits to locations such as the Slabs near Niland, virtually the front lines of the rural-healthcare-shortage dilemma. The students also participate in original research.
“We want them to see different career options,” Hoyt explains. “We also want them to make a difference here. We have problems locally with diabetes and obesity, and not enough nurses are writing grants to get funding to address those problems. We want to empower nurses so that when they see a problem, they can do something about it.”
Hoyt, of course, is an important role model, having earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees and having explored many aspects of the nursing profession. In 2009 she founded Imperial Valley Nursing Council, an organization that seeks to be a catalyst for nurses to improve their impact on community health, advanced nursing practices, education, adult care and leadership. She also had her master’s thesis on teen pregnancy published in the Journal of School Nursing and, she writes a blog on health for KQED, a National Public Radio station in San Francisco.
But when asked about the roots of her success, Hoyt does not waver: “My parents always supported me. I grew up in a very loving Christian home. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
All those patients, children, parents and ambitious nurses whose lives Helina Hoyt has touched are grateful as well.
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press