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Profile of a Member: Heather Harker Ryan

Heather Harker RyanHeather Harker Ryan, MS, RN
Boston Chapter Leader

It’s funny to think of myself as a cardiovascular nurse because I wouldn’t call myself that. I am a pediatric nurse who thinks about my patient’s adult hearts. Although I am not currently practicing clinically, my most recent clinical role was as a pediatric preventive cardiology nurse. Now I am a nurse educator and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Boston, teaching undergraduate pediatric nursing and working on my PhD. 

Describe a typical day, what are the biggest challenges, what are some of your favorite moments, what is most rewarding for you?

I don’t have a typical day anymore – every day is different! I try very hard to follow my mentor’s advice to “chunk and block,” so what I do often changes by the hour and the deadline. Some days I am at the Boston Public Library from dawn to dusk reading, writing, and thinking. My dissertation focuses on the role that intragenerational illness perceptions and parenting practices play in managing youth with presumed Heterozygous Familial Hypercholesterolemia. I want to know whether a parent’s personal experiences with HeFH influences how adherent their child is to lifestyle and medication recommendations. Other days I am helping with recruitment and coordination for a local FH Foundation CASCADE registry site through patient screening. Still other days I teach undergraduate nursing care of children at UMass Boston, which entails lecturing once a week – and these days I’m reviewing my lectures to see how much more active learning I can incorporate into the classroom. Some days, the only constant is email.

I love the opportunities I have to shape the thoughts of my students, and try to put particular emphasis in the curriculum on the importance of cardiovascular wellness across the lifespan. I also find research thrilling – particularly as a nurse. Sometimes it is evident how the perspective of our colleagues in other professions has shaped the trajectory of our knowledge, so when a question is identified that hasn’t been answered and can be approached with a nurse’s worldview, it’s particularly rewarding. 

How did you become a CV nurse? 

Although I did not set out to have a cardiology focus, I have always gravitated towards cardiovascular care because my mother has always been a very special cardiovascular patient for me. She has congenitally corrected coarctation of the aorta and dextrocardia. Growing up feeling like she was special because of this congenital defect just naturally resulted in my wanting to know more about it, and now that she is into her 7th decade, it’s been incredibly helpful to have the cardiovascular care experience to fall back on. 

Tell us how PCNA has helped you in your career.

PCNA has been an extremely important professional organization in my career. I originally heard of the organization through an Annual Symposium brochure that came across my desk in the preventive cardiology clinic – I recall being extremely excited by the idea of an organization focused on the type of nursing care I provided and recognized some of the speakers as being highly regarded in the field. I attended the symposium the next year, even submitting an abstract that was accepted for presentation. I was surprised that despite the aggregate of nurses in my region specializing in cardiology, no local chapter had been organized. Having seen a petition for chapterhood in the past, I reached out to see if there way anything I could do to help the organizer – which has led me, three years later, to be the president of the relatively new Boston Chapter. I find the networking and learning opportunities invigorating, and the leadership experiences have been integral to forwarding my career.  Although organizing local continuing education events can be somewhat time-consuming, the results have been incredibly rewarding. It is incredibly gratifying to hear how much nurses in the area value our events, particularly when we are able to find speakers with expertise relevant to their practice. 

What advice would you give to those just starting off in their nursing careers?

For those first starting out in nursing, my best advice would be to hold onto your professional curiosity. It’s so easy when you finish nursing school to think, “Whew! Thank goodness I got through that!” In actuality, finishing school is not an end, but a beginning. We have to push ourselves every day to look a little deeper, ask just one more question - and that isn’t always easy to do when you get on that nursing bicycle and just start peddling. Getting involved in a professional organization like PCNA is a great way to work that curiosity into your career without having to go too far out of the way. With a fantastic journal such as the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, there’s always something new to catch up on that’s right at your fingertips. Meeting other professionals who work with the same patients you do gives you exposure to both the clinical concerns and the practice issues that others face, and that can be both stimulating and reassuring!  Participating in PCNA has been immensely valuable for me professionally, and I hope that new nurses will see participation in a nursing organization such as this as a fundamental part of their continuing professional development as well. 

Do you have a favorite heart healthy recipe or tip to share?

I love active commuting. Boston has a bike sharing program that allows me to bicycle eight miles a day when I go to the hospital; 10 if I’m going to the University. I’ll also commute to a local primary care office by way of commuter rail, and walk the 2 miles round-trip from door to station. There’s no excuse to get active – you need to get where you’re going either way! Active commuting gets your heart rate up and works in those “steps” that sitting at a desk will simply never give you.  There’s no reason to think that you have to commute by foot or bike the whole way from home; it just requires a little creativity in finding a place to make you own path within your usual routine. I’d encourage anyone who can to try it!