Colin Smith: Beads of Courage and Caring

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A nurse practitioner calls on a nursing student in a classroom.When Colin Smith hears from one of her former nursing students, the subject is often beads.

Smith uses beads as a teaching aid in her role as an adjunct clinical faculty member at the Duquesne University School of Nursing. At the end of every week, each student takes one and talks about their new experiences. The beads become tokens of what her students have learned and accomplished.

“To this day, I have students from three-and-a-half years ago text me and say, ‘I’ve got beads in my pocket, and I’m going on a job interview,’” Smith says.

The concept originated from her earlier work with children at a nonprofit that used beads to mark the young patients’ progress as they moved through cancer treatments. The beads also serve to remind Smith that psychological care is a crucial part of clinical care.

“A lot of the symptoms that patients experience are related to mental health,” she explains. “If we can prioritize that side, as well as physical health, we’re taking better care of people.”

Learning about Care

Smith learned about caring while growing up in Atlanta. To help pay for college for Smith and her twin sister, their mother Cheryl became a real estate agent.

In college, Smith knew she wanted to pursue nursing, but she didn’t know what kind. To learn more, she volunteered at a different healthcare facility each summer.

The labor and delivery unit attracted her the most. “I was the one who put the stork outside the door when the mother came up from delivery,” Smith recalls. “You picked the pink or the blue stork, so everybody knew if it was a baby girl or a baby boy.”

By the time she received her bachelor’s degree from the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing, she knew she wanted to work with kids. For eight years, she did just that at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

She cared for some of the hospital’s most medically and emotionally challenging patients — in pediatric oncology and blood disorders. In 2008, the National Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses recognized her as Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse of the Year.

She also discovered a program that would enrich her life and the lives of her young patients: Beads of Courage.

Bravery and Beads

A pediatric oncology nurse in Tucson, Arizona, founded Beads of Courage in 2003. Inspired by a nearby bead museum, she believed the arts could lift her young patients’ spirits.

Children collect different colors for different experiences: yellow for each night in the hospital, red for a blood transfusion, and a star for surgery. Patients accumulate an average of 750 beads over the course of their treatments. They string them on necklaces or display them in boxes.

“Kids have a hard time sometimes articulating what they go through,” Smith says. “But you know, kids love to get a prize or a trophy. When you really acknowledge what they’re going through, on a day-to-day basis, it’s very validating. Later on, when they can look back in life and see what they’ve been through, it helps strengthen them going forward.”

Smith became so passionate about the program that she went to work for it. For four years, she set up hospital programs and trained nurses, both across the United States and in half a dozen other countries.

Says Smith, “It’s amazing to see something as simple as beads tell a story and speak the same language, even when a lot of us don’t.”

Called to Family Care

After four years with Beads of Courage, Smith was ready to return to direct patient care. At St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh, she spent six years in adult oncology, working first in infusions and later in breast surgery.

Being back on the hospital floor reawakened another longing: to advance her nursing education. Wanting to work with both children and adults, she decided to become a family nurse practitioner (FNP). In 2018, she found an FNP degree program in her backyard: the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) at Duquesne University School of Nursing.

Besides its long history, Duquesne offered her the chance to pursue her degree online. If her husband’s job took them to another city, she would be able to continue her studies.

She also appreciated taking coursework and clinical units together, rather than in separate semesters. “I learn better when I’m immersed in the classroom material and learning in the clinical setting at the same time,” she explains.

Teaching and Learning

Another attraction of Duquesne was that Smith could teach while pursuing her MSN.

Her favorite course is the one she currently teaches: Health Assessment. “To me, that’s the foundation of nursing skills,” she says. “How to connect with patients and how to properly assess them so you can take the best care of them.”

Teaching has also allowed her to bring beads back into her work, helping students process difficult experiences and remind themselves of how they overcame challenges. In 2018, she was honored for her innovations with a DAISY Foundation Award for Extraordinary Nursing Faculty.

In 2020, Smith earned her MSN and her certification as a family nurse practitioner. She didn’t stop there. She spent six months helping to administer COVID-19 vaccines before plunging back into online studies at Duquesne in pursuit of the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Post-Master’s Certificate.

Her new studies reflect her lifelong fascination with the psychological side of healing. “I’m holistic,” she says. “The older I get, the more I see the whole person. The more you feel cared for, the more healing you may have.”

Expand Career Options with Online Post-Master’s Certificates

Nursing offers a life-long learning opportunity. Even after achieving an MSN, nurses can deepen their knowledge and increase their competitive edge by pursuing a post-master’s certificate (PMC). Furthermore, an online program allows students to earn a certificate without taking time off from their current jobs.

Duquesne University School of Nursing’s online post-master’s certificates offer nurses a choice of six different medical specialties. These certificates can prepare students for certification as nurse practitioners in adult-gerontology acute care, family care, or psychiatric-mental health, or they can ready students to become forensic nurses, nurse educators, or executive nurse leaders. All six programs combine coursework with hands-on clinical experience. Explore these specialties further and discover how a post-master’s certificate can take your nursing career to the next level.

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Magnet Hospitals and Higher Nursing Degrees

Meeting the Demand for Graduate Degrees in Nursing through Certification

Seven Reasons to Pursue Post Master’s Nursing Certificates