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Catherine Sharbaugh with her children Katie and Christopher.
Catherine Sharbaugh with her children Katie and Christopher.

In Sickness and Health: Catherine Sharbaugh Has the Cure for What Ails Us

“We really should get a picture of the current group up there,” she muses.

A photo on the wall is the least that could be done to honor the woman under whose 16-year tenure Health Services has grown exponentially from its days as a simple college infirmary. It’s still the go-to spot for students needing anything from allergy injections to prescription refills, but it’s also become a prime campus source of education and treatment for a variety of afflictions, both physical and psychological.

Sharbaugh has been well-trained to deal with the everyday emergencies of a college health center. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Villanova University, she got her first nursing job in a cardiac step-down unit at New York University Medical Center. She was there for more than a year. “It’s like combat training in nursing,” she says. “The care is cutting-edge, and you’re exposed to many different kinds of illnesses.” One such illness was AIDS, or “fever of unknown origin” as it was known in the early days of fear and misunderstanding. Nurses were required to wear full protective gear and treat patients in isolation rooms, because no one knew exactly how the disease was transmitted.

“I had been taught to always touch patients, and not wear gloves because it was seen as insulting to them,” Sharbaugh recalls. “So literally I went from being trained to use my hands to wearing the total getup of protective gear.”

After her stint at NYU she moved across the country to pursue her master of science in nursing at UCLA, where she also worked in a same day recovery room: “This was a new concept, same-day surgery. Now it’s pretty routine.”

Even in those early years, she knew she wanted to be a family nurse practitioner. “I felt a need to use my full intellect,” she explains. “Hospital nursing is incredibly challenging—there’s a lot of protocol, standards of care and care plans. I wanted to use my own skills to diagnose and test and help patients myself in a more independent way. A nurse practitioner is in my opinion a beautiful blend of nursing and medicine—I use all of my nursing skill sets and add the medical background, so I can not only assess, but also treat and take a more holistic approach to the patient.”

The ad for the Haverford job, posted in a national nurse practitioner magazine, caught her eye in 1992. She and her husband Stephen lived in California, but he, an aerospace engineer, had been recruited for a company in King of Prussia, and she was searching for nearby employment. “I read the ad and said out loud, ‘I’m going to get that job,’” she laughs.

Sharbaugh began as an associate director at Health Services, and it was a fortuitous time for her to arrive. Then-President Tom Kessinger hoped to expand the program from an infirmary to more of a wellness center, and a thorough review of Health Services was conducted, taking student feedback into account and comparing Haverford’s health center with those at similar small liberal arts colleges, most of which were directed by doctors. (“So when they made me director in 1995, that was new,” says Sharbaugh.) As a result of that review, Health Services underwent a transformation. They instituted nutritional services, an on-site orthopedist, a sports medicine practitioner, a women’s health specialist, and an in-house substance abuse educator.

“When the need arises, you don’t want to be sending people off campus for those kinds of things,” Sharbaugh says.

Annual reviews of Health Services are now performed every year, and a student health advisory committee contributes valuable information. Sharbaugh and her colleagues also run wellness classes and programs for Collections. “We’ve become a resource for the community on issues of health and wellness,” she says.

More recent additions to Health Services include a massage therapist and the availability of travel vaccines to accommodate the many students (Sharbaugh estimates about 600 vaccines a year) who cross the globe for study abroad and internships. “We also educate them about they places they’re going, tell them about food, water and safety concerns and identify local clinic sites, hospitals, and American embassies.”

Although Health Services maintains a solid network of outside referrals for more serious or specialized cases, they make a point to meet as many students’ needs as they can on campus. As director, Sharbaugh reviews every incoming Ford’s health chart and communicates with students’ hometown physicians. She plays a vital role in peer education and training student assistants at the Women's Center to help victims of rape or sexual assault. She works with the Disabilities Coordinator and Psychological Services on common goals. She also oversees Health Services staffing, checking the certification of employees and making sure they maintain Haverford’s high standards.

She’s particularly proud that Health Services has been accredited by the Ambulatory Association of Health Care since 1980; this is the first nurse practitioner-run clinic in Pennsylvania to receive this honor. “It’s the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Sharbaugh smiles. “It’s good to let parents know that we meet national standards.”

Health Services is up for re-accreditation in 2007-2008, so much of Sharbaugh’s year will be spent preparing for the on-site evaluation in May. Over the years, changes have been made based on the association’s recommendations. “That, along with student feedback, really helps me as an administrator,” she says. “We want to be seen as a place that’s user-friendly.”

In addition to anticipating a successful re-accreditation in May, Sharbaugh is currently preparing to hire new staff members such as evening on-call nurses and a replacement for women’s health coordinator Beth Kotarski, who recently left for Swarthmore; and, when not at Haverford, she’s raising her two children, seven-year-old Katie and three-year-old Christopher. (Husband Stephen passed away five years ago.) She is also busy with her responsibilities as chair of the Eating Issues and Body Image Council; she collaborates with the Women’s Center and other local resources to sponsor educational initiatives, art, music and movement therapy, and lectures at Collection. She herself sees many students with eating issues as patients, and helps them as they struggle with the causes, re-occurrences, and repercussions of their disorders.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to address their issues themselves for the first time,” she says. “Haverford students really rise to being independent and taking this on. We see a lot of success stories, people realizing that they don’t need to obsess about weight.” She enjoys seeing them grow from adolescents who won’t take responsibility for their behavior to young adults who treat themselves right: “It’s a beautiful thing to see happen.”

The students are a large part of what makes Sharbaugh happy to have chosen a career in a collegiate health center rather than a hospital. “They’re bright and eager to learn and change,” she says. “You don’t always see that among the hospital population. We are also dealing with students who are at the beginning of learning how to take good care of themselves. You can make positive changes in a person’s life if they’re willing to try. That’s refreshing.”

She also admires the selflessness and volunteer spirit among the students she encounters. “I’m always impressed with their willingness to assist and give input and work with us on issues. That’s what makes it a joy to work here.”

-Brenna McBride

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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