Shirlee Snyder

Nevada State College’s dean of nursing on the state of the profession, the importance of health promotion and the nurse-doctor relationship


Photo by Anthony Mair

As a staff nurse, clinical specialist, professor, academic administrator and co-author of two textbooks, Shirlee Snyder has dedicated more than 40 years of her life to nursing. So it’s logical to conclude that her passion for the profession dates back to childhood. Logical … but wrong. “When I was growing up, there weren’t many options open to young girls that there are today,” she says. “You were either a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or a housewife—that was about it.”

Snyder selected door No. 2 and never looked back. Over the span of three decades, academic pursuits and work took her from her home state of Wisconsin to Birmingham, Ala.; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and, finally, Las Vegas, where she landed in 1998 as director of the nursing program at the College of Southern Nevada. She held that post until 2003, when the fledgling Nevada State College launched its School of Nursing and hired Snyder as an associate professor.

Snyder, 65, was promoted to dean in 2009, and today she oversees a four-track baccalaureate program that has an enrollment of nearly 400 and has produced about 600 alumni in the last seven years.

When Nevada State established its nursing program there was a chronic nursing shortage in Southern Nevada, then it started to swing the other way. Where do we stand now?

I’m not sure it really swung the other way. You’re right, when the nursing program started, many of our grads had jobs by graduation time. Now it may take up to six months to find a job. Before they could practically dictate [terms]—I want to work days, I don’t want weekends—but it’s not that way anymore. But when this economy [improves], nursing literature predicts the worst shortage ever. People say, “Oh, we don’t have a nursing shortage; we don’t have to worry.” Right now it might seem that way, but once the economy turns around and all these nurses who are in their 60s start to retire, we’re going to have a significant shortage. So we have to get ready for that by producing nursing students and graduates.

Was there a moment in your life when you knew you made the right career decision?

There was a young child who was in a car accident and his mom had been killed and his dad was very injured. The child was in ICU and had to have brain surgery and was nonresponsive. So this little child [was lying] in this big adult bed on a respirator, and he just looked so lonely. So I asked the neurologist, “Can we just hold him and rock him?” and he said yes. So we got a rocking chair and we took turns rocking him, and he started waking up. It was just a gut reaction—now there’s all this research on carrying and touching and all of that—but it was just that gut instinct, that intuition that a lot of nurses have that, “You know, I wonder if he’s just feeling lonely.” And he got better. He actually walked out of the hospital. But every nurse has stories like that.

What’s the most underappreciated quality of a nurse?

That they are bright and smart and critical thinkers—that they’re not just an extension of a physician. Nursing is one of the most trusted professions, and we do have those interpersonal skills to relate to people, and that caring is good. But caring and competence have to go together. People see the caring and appreciate the caring, but the competence, though it’s always there, I don’t think people truly know it.

How can we all be better patients?

We’ve been in the acute-care mode where we wait till you get sick and then we try to fix you. Now we need to look at health promotion—taking steps before you get diabetes, before you get high blood pressure, hypertension.

What movie or television show has done the best job of portraying the medical profession?

Most of them don’t. And it’s influenced the image of nursing negatively—[the perception that] nurses don’t do anything, they don’t think for themselves. I can’t think of [a movie or television show] that’s been positive. That’s unfortunate. And when young people see these programs or they see that image, that can be a deterrent to becoming a nurse.

What do nurses really think of doctors?

Oh boy! It depends on the doctor, it really does. It used to be when I was in nursing school—now this was really the old days; I tell my students that Florence Nightingale was my roommate—when a doctor entered the nursing station, we had to stand up and give them our chair. Thank God that is no longer the case. I have great hopes for the younger generation of medical students because they’re not like that. But [the nurse-doctor relationship] has gotten better, and it can get better still. There are wonderful docs, and then there are … just like there are wonderful nurses and not-so-wonderful nurses.

Do you have any doubts about the long-term viability of Nevada State College?

No. People are getting to know us now; we’re turning 10 years old this year. We’re small, but we’re mighty. We are doing such incredible things here—honest to God, we really are—that people don’t know about, and we need to just spread the word. And that’s going to start happening.

Do you remember that movie Seabiscuit, where nobody thought the horse could win? That to me is us. Nobody knew us, but they’re going to.