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Plucked From Harp-Making Career, Craftsman Becomes Nurse

  • Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen)

    Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen)

    Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen)
  • Nurse Ansel Erickson-Zinter, right, goes over paperwork with patient Nick Marcoux, of Swansea, Mass., at DHMC’s orthopedic, trauma and plastic surgery care unit last week.(Valley News — Geoff Hansen)

Lebanon — It is common during an economic recession to hear of people retooling their careers at a relatively late age. Long-term unemployment can be an incentive for change of all kinds.

But not everyone jumps at the opportunity for a career change with the level of enthusiasm that Lebanon resident Ansel Erickson-Zinter showed when he decided he wanted to become a nurse. Having succeeded as a craftsman manufacturing Swedish folk harps, the Massachusetts native with a background in fine arts signed up for classes in physiology, chemistry and human anatomy — and never looked back.

Now 50 years old and the father of three teenage children, Erickson-Zinter has worked for three years as both a student and a registered nurse in the orthopedics-trauma-plastics department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. In September 2012, he was the recipient of a Daisy Award (“Daisy” stands for “diseases of the autoimmune system”), which recognized him as an exceptional caregiver.

Erickson-Zinter recently spoke with the Valley News about his transition from craftsman to nurse. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Valley News: How old were you when you went back to school?

Ansel Erickson-Zinter: I was 46 when I started the process of going for my prerequisites. I had a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, so I didn’t have any classes to transfer over to a nursing program. That old phrase, that education is wasted on youth, I can certainly attest to that. When I had the chance to go back to school I loved it. I loved the process of learning (and) being in academia. I still remember sitting down in Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Mass., for the first day of anatomy and physiology amongst all 18-year-old kids fresh out of high school. I sat in the front row and just loved being back in that environment.

The struggles were balancing work at a part-time job, family life and learning how to study and prepare for tests in what would become a very challenging 18-month accelerated intensive second degree bachelor’s program at (the University of Massachusetts-Ahmerst.) It really took me out of society as we know it for a good 18 months.

I did feel overwhelmed about the amount of homework. If I wasn’t in school, I was at a part-time job or studying in the library or studying at home or sleeping. But I jumped at the opportunity. I struggled with chemistry when I was in high school (and the teacher told me) to drop out, so I went and took something else. Now, in retrospect, I wish I had never dropped out, because I absolutely love chemistry. That was one of the first courses I took as a prerequisite.

To me, it represented an opportunity to acquire something that I had really missed out on in the Boston public school system. It was not easy, but it was fascinating.

VN: Did you ever feel like quitting?

AE: There was a one-week period just five months before graduation when it just seemed like an impossible week to get everything done that I needed to get done. I had multiple tests to study for, critical research papers to finish and critical rotations to get through at the hospitals. There just didn’t seem to be time enough to accomplish any of it. It was a very stressful time.

VN: How does your experience as a harp maker connect to your new career as a nurse?

AE: There is a strong correlation (between the two). The harps that I built were folk harps, (starting) with a small three-octave harp. It allows the harpist to carry the harp around and wear it with a guitar strap. A woman working in palliative care discovered my harp for her work and two other people started programs using music, and most frequently using harps, in hospice and palliative care situations. They were contacting me to build harps for their programs.

So suddenly my harps were traveling around the world being played at hospitals. Harps have been shown to reduce the respiratory rate of patients. It enables them to relax so that their vital signs actually become more stabilized. I shadowed (a hospital harpist) once down in New Jersey and I noticed a ventilated patient who was in a fetal position when we walked in. Within 15 minutes, she had straightened her legs and her arms and her breathing was much less labored.

VN: Is that was got you thinking about nursing as a career?

AE: That was the initial wake up, when the light bulb went off in my head. I come from a sports background. I love playing sports and teamwork and camaraderie. When I got my first job as an (licensed nurse assistant), I realized that, working in the medical field, you work on a team. You cannot do it alone. I really like the camaraderie of working in that capacity, knowing that you can lean back on other people and knowing that they’ll need you in other circumstances. I’ve also always had an interest in physiology and nutrition and trying to live a healthy life through exercise and good eating habits. The other component was that I really like to teach, and teaching is actually a big part of nursing.

I was at a party one night and the host was an oncology nurse. We just got talking and it was that night that I made my decision. I signed up for classes the next day.

VN: What do you like most about nursing?

AE: I feel more useful today than I did 20 years ago. I really do. My job is very active. It’s very high-octane floor. I’ve been a workaholic my whole life and I’ve finally discovered a job where I can be a workaholic but it doesn’t have to be seven days a week. When I had my business for 12 years, I literally worked 24/7. There was always something to do.

Now, I work three 12-hour shifts and pick up overtime here and there, but I do have time off. Now I cherish my time off. It’s nice. I can still be a workaholic, which I always like to be, and have the downtime that, as a human being, you need.

VN: Do the days go fast?

AE: Yes! I work 13-hour shifts, when you include receiving reports in the morning and giving reports at night. It goes by like an eight-hour shift.

VN: Have you come up against any stereotypes about male nurses?

AE: Since I have moved up to New Hampshire, that stereotype has been nonexistent for me. Down in Massachusetts as an LNA I did see a lot of stereotyping. A lot of female patients didn’t want a male caregiver. I can understand in that capacity, because an LNA is a very intimate relationship. So I don’t know if it’s moving to New Hampshire or moving from an LNA to an RN or moving to a strictly orthopedic-trauma floor that has changed things for me.

What I really think is hidden from our society is the female controlled nursing environment and what they have done since the profession’s inception. They have done it very quietly and very humbly. The women nurses I know work their tails off. I just think, as a group, they have not gotten the credit that is due them. It’s women who have made nursing what it is today. When I entered the field, I realized these women work really hard. It’s not just a mental job, where you’re using your mind all the time and you become mentally fatigued. You’re using your body, so you become physically fatigued as well.

When I first was an LNA, I could barely make the drive home after my shift. I was falling asleep at the wheel. I’ve worked in construction, so I know what it’s like to be physically depleted at the end of the day. Then going through school, I know what it’s like to be mentally depleted. But now, I’m working in a job that’s both mentally and physically challenging.

VN: Are there emotional challenges as well?

AE: That’s an interesting question. I never even considered that. But it’s actually huge. When you’re having a bad day, you realize it could always be worse. My patients inspire me on a daily basis. Whatever problem they come in with, they have all this other medical baggage to deal with. Some of it may be psychological. They may have been abused in their lives. They may have been born with a birth defect. They may have acquired some rare disease.

This is the part of the job that is at its most intimate. I often feel that I am learning information that patients may not even have told to the people closest to them. It’s the most intimate job that I can think of. I respect that sanctity and that is actually one of the most rewarding components of my job and that really does happen on a daily basis.

Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.