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Arlene Wahwasuck, bsn '76, finds no such thing as retirement when you have passion for your craft

Arlene Wahwasuck posing in the Memorial Union

(Arlene Wahwasuck, bsn '76. Photo by Michael Snell)

From The Ichabod - Winter 2022
By Annie Flachsbarth

Arlene Wahwasuck, bsn ’76, always wanted to be a nurse. As the youngest of six children, she often felt left out and looked to her imagination to fulfill her nursing fantasies.

“I didn’t have anyone to play with except mean brothers, and they wouldn’t play ‘girl’ games with me,” Wahwasuck said. “Luckily, my mother always had chickens, cats and dogs. I mixed up salt water as pretend medicine and put bandages on them like they were people. They were my first playmates and patients.”

Eventually, Wahwasuck’s nursing dreams became a reality, and she’s spent the past 67 years nursing and educating fellow Native Americans – proving that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

Wahwasuck graduated as a registered nurse from St. Margaret Hospital School of Nursing in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1954. Not only was she the school’s first nursing student graduate, but she was also the first Native American graduate. She worked in several hospitals in northeast Kansas as a staff nurse for 15 years before starting her career as a clinic nurse with Indian Health Services in Holton, Kansas, in 1969.

While at IHS, she earned a degree from Washburn University in 1976 – becoming one of the University’s first bachelor of science in nursing graduates – and then took a role in public health nursing at Holton and Haskell IHS. Part of Wahwasuck’s responsibilities focused on cancer detection, including assisting with a mobile health center to provide breast and cervical cancer education to the Native American community.

“I talked to women about how to take care of themselves and how to do breast self examinations,” Wahwasuck said. “A lot of women were scared to get mammograms – so I would try to reassure and encourage them by explaining the procedure.”

She continued to grow and earned a master of science in nursing at the University of Kansas. She served as a nurse officer with the U.S. Public Health Service and went on to serve as the area nurse consultant at the Nashville, Tennessee, IHS office, and then as the public health consultant and community health representative coordinator at the Sacramento, California, IHS office.

“As nurse officer, I advocated, educated and promoted health and wellness among Native Americans,” she said. “I loved helping educate people to be healthier and assisting nursing staff to deliver quality nursing care.”

Her many years of service earned her multiple awards for her outstanding contributions in raising the health of Native Americans. She was honored as a Washburn Alumni Fellow in 2002.

Even after retiring, Wahwasuck’s passion has kept her going. She’s now the chair of the Social Services Advisory Board for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation – with the goal of helping develop a healthier community.

“We’re training people about problems like substance abuse and trauma,” Wahwasuck said. “I’m coordinating all of the groups within the tribe that have anything to do with health – and it’s an honor to be involved with helping my tribe be healthier.”

Spring 2022 The Ichabod cover. Sculpture on the lawn north of Memorial Union

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions

 

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