By Matt Skoufalos
In the 21 years he’s given to the nursing profession, Justin Fontenot, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, knows that the patients with whom he’s interacted have changed his life. The intimate connections the profession has afforded him to the people in his care, and the ways in which that work affirms their mutual humanity, have underscored his desire to leave the profession a more inclusive field than when he entered it.
“We have to know people,” Fontenot said. “We have to know how people want to die; how people want to be treated. We have to be the calming voice of reason for both patients and families, and I feel like that is one of the highest honors of humanity; to actually understand humans.”
“I am the adult I am today because of so many patients and their families, and their impact that they probably don’t even know they had on my life,” he said. “To be a part of a profession that is at the root and the fabric of humanity is one of the greatest gifts that anybody can give.”
With several nurses in his extended family, Fontenot grew up wondering whether a health care career would be on his horizon, too. It wasn’t until his mother fell ill with chronic pain during his teenaged years that he experienced the workings of the system first-hand.
Symptomatically, she presented with shoulder pain that the doctors she saw believed was related to cardiac issues. But after several tests showed that nothing was wrong with her heart, Fontenot said some physicians “went as far as to suggest that it was all in her head.”
“The process was kind of infuriating,” he said. “They kept working her up for cardiac [disease], and finding there wasn’t anything wrong with her heart. It wasn’t her heart at all; it was a deadly cancer that was manifesting itself.”
Sadly, within two months of that cancer diagnosis, Fontenot’s mother succumbed to her illness. Had she had health insurance, she would have been able to get screenings that could have saved her life. The motivation of that moment propelled Fontenot into a career in health care.
“I was raised in a small, impoverished community, and we were an uninsured family,” he said. “My family were hard-working people who worked for small businesses and local people, and they didn’t provide benefits.
“I got into health care in that moment, and I knew I was going to be a champion for equitable access in health care,” Fontenot said. “I wanted to come into the profession in some kind of way and make an impact.”
Beyond Fontenot’s commitment to improving access to care for impoverished and marginalized communities, his mother’s medical conditions also exposed him to the ways in which institutional bias is perpetuated among practitioners in the field. The conventional understanding that women experience cardiac symptoms differently from men led to his mother’s perspectives on her body being dismissed, ultimately, until it was too late.
“It’s more about not hearing women versus the fact that they experience different symptoms,” Fontenot said. “There’s a difference between not listening and assuming. The way we stop perpetuating bias is by letting all of that go and listening to each individual patient.”
“When I realized I could be a nurse, and work in health care, and work at the bedside with patients, and teach future health care workers, I make it a point to add these things into my curriculum,” he said.
Fontenot is a first-generation high-school graduate in his family; neither of his parents nor his older siblings earned a high-school diploma. As such, he experienced some systemic barriers to his education that were related to growing up poor; namely, after graduating high school at 17, he enrolled directly in college, and failed out during his first semester.
Upon resetting his plans, Fontenot discovered that his local community college offered an entry-level nursing degree. Three years later, he graduated as a licensed practical nurse, and began working directly in bedside patient care in medical-surgical units. Thereafter, he enrolled at South Louisiana Community College, worked his way through an associate degree in nursing, and passed the clinical exam. These were his first steps toward the professional advancement that higher education would offer.
“Before I even got my bachelor’s degree, I had made it into a leadership position,” Fontenot said. “I thought, ‘If I want to teach, I have to go back to school.’ ”
Fontenot then enrolled in an RN/BSN program at Western Governors University, from which he also earned a master’s of science in nursing degree with a concentration in leadership and administration. After a decade in home care nursing and hospice management, he decided to pursue a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, and today, he’s pursuing a DNP-to-Ph.D. program.
“In nursing, you really need the research doctorate in academics if you want to go a little further in administrative roles,” Fontenot said. “The bulk of our work is mentoring and teaching future health care professionals, but I split my time between serving the university, engaging in scholarship and research, and teaching. My goal and passion is developing a body of research that will allow me to continue that work.”
In addition to continuing his research and education work, Fontenot also has his sights set on academic leadership roles. At the LHC Group Myers School of Nursing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he is an assistant professor, Fontenot is keenly aware of the opportunity to use his perspective to overcome institutional biases. As an openly gay, male nursing professional, Fontenot believes his outlook on the world can help break down barriers to future nurses like him who are entering the profession.
“The way our workforce looks today is very dependent on what our academic workforce looks like,” he said. “I hope to position myself in a position of administration so that when people look at our university, they can see that a gay boy from the South can be a dean of nursing if they wanted to. That’s exactly how we change the way the workforce looks.”
“When you don’t have a faculty that represents the growing diversity of the area that we’re in, then people don’t believe there’s a place for them,” he said. “I hope that I at least show people that nursing is open, not just for women, but for all kinds of men. Nursing is for everyone who feels compelled or called to share that gift of caregiving in our communities.”