Officially, Cathryn Baack (PhD, APRN, FNP-C, CPNP-Retired) has been a nurse since 1986. As a caregiver, her experience goes back even farther. When she was 14, she served as a nursing assistant in a local nursing home. Before that, she helped to care for a family member with disabilities.
"It never crossed my mind that I would do anything but nursing," reflects Dr. Baack, now Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Graduate Nursing Programs at South University, Cleveland.
After starting her nursing career in a CCU step down unit and then working in long term care, Baack spent over a decade in pediatric nursing, an area she was drawn to while raising her own daughter with special needs.
"That special needs child, who is now 27, not only got me working with children, but she also was instrumental in me deciding to go into family practice," Baack explains. "As she aged out of pediatrics, I realized that many families need someone to follow them throughout their lifespan."
In 2015, Baack added a Family Nurse Practitioner post graduate certificate to her list of educational achievements—which already included a bachelor's, master's and PhD. Today, in addition to her role at South University, Baack works as a family nurse practitioner in Medicare management and risk assessment.
Having cared for patients at all stages of life, Baack always brings course material to life by connecting what’s she teaching in class to real situations from her past. By drawing on her own personal experiences, she also teaches students to better empathize with patients.
"I've been a patient, I've been a family member, I've been a parent, and I've been an advocate. I spent a good deal of my daughter’s childhood in and out of hospitals and doctor's appointments. I taught my daughter to advocate for herself, so I know the importance of teaching patients to be their own advocate," she says. "These are all things that I bring to the classroom."
Baack has worked in education since 2006 and joined South University in 2014. Her expectations are high and she challenges her students to learn from each other, to seek out their own answers and solutions, and to commit to being lifelong learners and self-starters. Every week, she asks students to share and discuss their own clinical experiences, from what was most interesting to what prompted the toughest ethical questions.
"I want them to learn from each other as much as they learn from me. Each of them brings something unique to the class," she says, noting the diversity of age and experience among her students. "I can’t give them everything. They have to take responsibility for their own education too, so they need to look for those experiences that they, and their classmates, can learn from."
For Baack, the joy in teaching comes from watching as her students grow and their thinking evolves. "Even when they're working their regular RN jobs, they start asking, 'What do I think is going on with this patient? What can I find in their charts that would confirm what I think their diagnosis is?’ Differential diagnosis starts coming naturally without them thinking about it."
A lot of those rewarding moments occur, she says, after students complete tough classes like Advanced Pathophysiology or Pharmacology. Then, in their practicums, things fall into place, as they realize how well those courses prepared them for making and explaining clinical decisions, including teaching patients what's causing their symptoms and how their medications will help.
While she expects a lot from her students, Baack gives a lot back as well and her students become like family. She hosts pool parties for classes approaching graduation and frequently receives texts from her students; they all have her cell phone number. "They know, no matter what's going on, they can contact me and that I'm there for them," she says.
Her dedication stems from a true pride in her work. "I tell all of my students to find their passion. If they don't love the job they're doing then look for a new one, because the job they love is out there. If you don't love what you're doing, you're not doing yourself or your patients any good," she advises, adding, "I have the best of both worlds because I love to teach and I love to work with patients and I get to do both."