At the end of a 50-year nursing career, it would have been easy for Kathleen Singleton, MSN, APRN-CNS, CMSRN, to reflect upon the circumstances that brought her into health care as the culmination of a lifelong interest. But at the beginning, Singleton describes her pursuit of a nursing career with words like “serendipitous,” “fortuitous” and “happenstance.”
From a young age, Singleton had learned to be self-sufficient: she lost her father at 14, and her mother battled chronic conditions that required the young woman to become resilient and resourceful as well as caregiving. But in school, she said her advisors believed college would be out of reach, and career options for women who didn’t attain an advanced degree were limited. It wasn’t until her high school best friend decided to pursue a nursing career – and dragged Singleton along with her – that she discovered an unanticipated aptitude for it.
“Suddenly, I was getting high scores, and the rest was history,” Singleton said. “My friend went on to be a very good executive secretary, and I ended up being the nurse.”
She completed her LPN education at the nearby Lakewood School of Practical Nursing in Ohio, and right out of training was hired into an intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital. For the remainder of her career, Singleton split time between ICU and medical-surgical nursing at the Cleveland Clinic (20 years) and Cleveland Fairview Hospital (27 years) in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It’s been meaningful work that I am very grateful for,” Singleton said. “It matters when you’re there, and it matters when you’re not. I use the words ‘serendipitous’ and ‘fortuitous’ and ‘happenstance,’ and I certainly stand on the shoulders of giants and many other people who’ve paved the way for me. I also had excellent mentors and leaders throughout my entire career.”
Singleton credits a knack for fusing humor and compassion as something that fueled her career longevity. She described those lifelong character traits as useful tools in a caregiving circumstance and a way of forming connections that helped her lead teams, support coworkers and get patients on the path to recovery. She also cites her own interest in others and curiosity about their perspectives on life as having been instrumental to her success as a nurse.
“My patients, peers, pupils and other professionals of the health care team have always given me more than I’ve ever brought to them,” Singleton said. “I’ve always worked with colleagues who said, ‘Try this, do that,’ and I’ve always gotten a kick in the pants when I needed one.”
By embracing the type of guidance and mentoring that Singleton said pushed her out of her comfort zone and into opportunities for growth, she realized the way to bring others to the same point was by identifying their passions, their preferences and their potential. She boiled it down to learning what people are interested in, what they’re good at (and whether those are the same things), and helping them to marry each with consistent effort. Those guideposts served her well in a lengthy volunteer career with the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN), with which she volunteered for more than 26 years – longer than half her professional nursing career.
“I always believe that you should actively belong to the specialty organization that represents your practice and to keep up with their literature,” Singleton said. “If you’re going to represent that, you have to model those behaviors and not just talk the talk. Belonging to a professional organization, you get a picture of something that’s way bigger than yourself. I thought it was important for me to be able to impart that knowledge back, and one committee led to another.”
Med-surg nurses are the largest group of acute-care nurses in the nursing field, and part of a specialty that routinely provides simultaneous care consistently to multiple patients and their visitors. Their dual roles in meeting the diverse needs of patients, many of whom have multiple complex diagnoses or acute exacerbations of a chronic illness, as well as large complement of visitors who join them in the hospital, means med-surg nursing involves a composition of a keen intellect, technical skills and emotional intelligence.
“One of the most important things they do is they possess clinical skill sets to detect both subtle and acute changes in a patient’s condition,” Singleton said. “That can be towards recovery – they could require just a little support – or those changes could mean there’s a need for urgent or emergent care. Med-surg nurses collaborate to initiate advanced care until a bed or a transport is ready, and they still retain full responsibility for delegating care of the other patients within their nursing unit.”
Med-surg nurses leverage strong diagnostic skills to optimize their patients’ functionality, to help visitors make the best of a difficult circumstance and, more than anything, to treat everyone they encounter with dignity and respect, Singleton said.
“No matter what technology or pharmacology, you don’t lose track of the person in the bed,” she said. “They’re still people at the end of the day. I never wanted to lose sight of that.”
To help ensure that future generations of nurses similarly don’t lose sight of their patients’ humanity, AMSN made former president, Singleton, the namesake of a new award, given annually to a facility that recognizes medical-surgical nurses as clinical leaders who function as a team within a nursing unit, and not just as workers on a hospital floor. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the inaugural recipient was the Cleveland Clinic.
“The idea of a continued expectation of excellence – you’re always looking to see what could be better, what could be improved – and that expectation of evolving and improving and being a dynamic healthy workplace, that’s what this award recognizes,” Singleton said.
As she’s now retired, Singleton spends much of her time with friends and members of her large extended family as Aunt, Great-aunt, Godmother and “Aunt Kathy” to many. She attends events from T-ball through dance recitals. She enjoys all sports, especially baseball games; live music; chiefly the Cleveland Orchestra; and reading works by humorous authors.