Part four of our week-long series highlighting some of the amazing nurses of the Nurse Alliance of SEIU Pennsylvania.
Gary Margulis loves a challenge. And that’s a good thing, because his job as a registered nurse at the Norristown State Hospital is a challenging one. The patients he deals with are some of the most difficult a nurse can encounter
“These are extremely dysfunctional patients,” Gary explains. “Arsonists, rapists, sexual predators, people found not guilty by reason of insanity — the list goes on and on. Schizophrenia is a big issue here, borderline personality, narcissism, etcetera.”
While any nurse could be forgiven for seeking out a much less dangerous assignment, Gary considers his role in these patients’ lives an opportunity.
“These are people who don’t do well in a community,” he said. “I love the challenge of helping them get the basics of humanity down so they can develop some social regard for each other. So they can function in settings that are controlled and act like a civilized person would act in society.”
Gary finds his joy in getting his patients to what he calls “That Aha! Moment,” where they see a situation in a new light and learn to react in a much healthier way.
He recalled an incident with on patient, a former boxer with violent tendencies.
“That’s how he dealt with his emotions,” Gary explained. “He would beat you into submission.”
According to Gary, his patient was beating a guy viciously and he interceded. Not with force, but with words.
Gary pointed out that the man he was beating held no power over him and posed no threat. Even if the man were to yell and scream at the ex-boxer, Gary noted, he could do nothing to physically harm him. Whereas the ex-boxer could inflict lethal damage, an issue that brought him to the hospital in the first place.
“ You have the ability to say yes or no,” Gary told the man. “To channel your emotions; to do something different other than to fight… I’ll put it to you this way: if you really want to be a man, it takes a man to walk away… you decide what you want to do. Because you have a future.”
It not only ended the fight, it created a bond Gary said he enjoys with this patient to this day.
“When I see him now he says, ‘You know what I think about everything a lot differently. If it’s not a physical threat, if it’s not somebody who’s really going to do me harm, yeah, I can be a man and walk away.”
If Gary seems more like a mentor than a medical professional, that’s no accident. He started his career as a high school teacher, but fate intervened when he met someone who saw the caregiver in him.
“Through a very strange coincidence, I met a guy who was an ex-preacher and then became a nurse,” he recalled. “We started to talk and he says, ‘You’d make a good nurse.’ Two weeks later I completed my application to school and got accepted.”
While he loves his new career in nursing, Gary still hasn’t abandoned his teaching roots.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I still teach now, at a university. I teach nurses.”
“I’m passionate about my teaching,” Gary continued. “I work for one major university and one up-and-coming university. Rutgers has been my long-time home, I’ve been there six years now. This is my second year at Stockton.”
His life may be full of things he’s passionate about, but Gary still has those issues with his chosen career that many nurses will find familiar, regardless of their setting. One of his greatest hurdles? Red tape.
Gary laments the difficulty getting management and higher ups to abandon ill-conceived practices born out of habit and embrace the evidence-based practices he stresses to his students.
“It’s like, ‘Listen, this is what it is,’” he said. “‘This is what evidence-based practice shows. We should be doing this, because this seems to be the best of what I see from other places.’ But it’s ‘No, no, no. We do it this way because this is the way we’ve always done it and this is the way we’re going to do it.’ That’s not evidence-based practice.”
Gary has made a bit of a career out of tilting at windmills. Just this year he submitted a research paper to Governor Tom Wolf in the hopes of convincing him to rethink the money the state spends on treatment systems that need vast improvement. He has yet to successfully convince the governor. Similar efforts he spearheaded in 2011 to convince then Governor Tom Corbett to spare the Norristown State Hospital from closure were much more successful, he said.
“I am the proverbial tail that wags the dog,” Gary laughed. “I take great pride in that. I’ve always been that way, from my first job until now. I listen to everyone, but I take a backseat to no one.”
That take charge attitude lends itself well to his role as chapter vice-president of the union. It’s a quality he talks of proudly.
“In my last job, as union president, we took the CEO to court seven times,” Gary recalled. “He lost all seven battles. If it wasn’t for the power of the union, I would still be eating ramen noodles.”
Another issue that Gary has strong opinions about is nurse staffing.
“Staffing really needs to be addressed, because a lot of places abuse their nurses and then they burn them out,” he explained.
Gary also doesn’t think nurses should be shy about standing up for themselves in the professional setting.
“Moreso than anything, nursing professionals need to stand up for themselves and stop being the handmaiden,” he said. “Twenty years ago, when I came out of school it was, ‘Be nice. Pull your seat out and give it to the doctor. Don’t say much.’ No! We’re professionals. Nursing is incredibly complicated and so much depends on us.”
That fire in Gary’s heart is what keeps him fighting for his fellow nurses.
“This is what I fear most — complacency,” he said. “It doesn’t sit well in my stomach, so that’s why I fight.”