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.”
Helina Hoyt: A Return to her Roots