If you ask UNLV School of Nursing associate professor and faculty-in-residence Kathleen Thimsen about her earliest encounters with health care, she may bring up horseradish, riding in a helicopter with her brother and father, or likely the child from the trash barrel. These aren’t fleeting, random flashbacks, but essential memories from her childhood that shaped her nursing career on a path toward specialized areas such as forensic nursing, wound care, and community health.
Thimsen arrived at UNLV in September 2020. She is the school’s new program director for the doctor of nursing practice program. Settling into her new life out West, Thimsen, who earned a doctorate of nursing practice degree from Regis University in 2015, uses the lessons she’s learned over the years to impart new knowledge to students hungry to grow into capable nurses.
What drew you to UNLV?
I think meeting Dean (Angela) Amar, and her openness and her mission was certainly attractive. I did my due diligence, and the programs and the potential growth opportunities, I think, are incredible. When I met the faculty on my first interaction, they were so amazingly open, honest, just collegial. I just felt a kinship with them on that Zoom call, and I think the plethora of resources the university has is just incredible. I also like the diversity of the student population at UNLV. It's a very different distribution, ethnically, than I was used to in St. Louis. We had diversity, but it was a different mix of populations.
What Vegas things have you done since you have been here?
I came out here in January (2020) to do forensic telehealth training with an international company based in Boulder City. They put me up at their lake house at Lake Mead, and I fell in love with the area. I go to the lake every weekend. My dog and I hike, and we have a good time. I go kayaking and have amazing friends there. In terms of really exploring Vegas itself, I’ve driven around. I’ve met a lot of interesting and super-nice people.
When you were young, did you know you were going to be a nurse?
No, I didn't want to be a nurse. My dad was a pediatrician, and in those days, he would put me in the car, and we'd go do house calls and he'd trade his care for vegetables. One of his patients owned a horseradish farm, and we would get paid in horseradish. I always thought I would be a doctor or an archeologist. Those were the days when you had to be a lady, so my mom told me I couldn't be an archeologist, but I really wanted to go to medical school. My dad always told me not to be a nurse because (he thought) you are a handmaid to a physician.
I was in physical therapy. I had my first child and laying in the hospital bed — hospitals all smelled like alcohol and disinfectant — I missed that smell, the sound of the overhead paging system, and the click of the nurse's shoes on the floor. I thought I need to go back and be a nurse. Two months later I applied to nursing school and with a 6-month-old child, I started nursing school. I don't have any regrets since that time. My saying is, “I love what I do, and I do what I love,” and I've never worked a day in my life because I just enjoy this.
What drew you toward forensic nursing and wound care?
My dad was always big about taking my brother and me to the hospital with him on rounds. I'll never forget as a young child; he took me this one specific Sunday because there was a child that he wanted me to see and impart an important message to me. In those days, people burned their trash in their yard and my dad’s patient, a little girl, had fallen into the trash barrel and sustained severe burns to most of her body. At a young age, thinking back, it was kind of a traumatic thing. He walked me into the room to see this charred child, and I never forgot it. My dad sat there with that little girl. He was always grinning and teasing her until she laughed. His interaction with that child taught me about making people feel comfortable, safe, laughing a little, and always providing hope and encouragement.
The lesson I learned from the little girl that was burned was more than about being safe around fire. It was a first-hand experience of seeing human suffering and humanness. I also learned about empathy and always imparting hope to a person — something you can always offer.
The first pandemic or first vaccine rollout I ever saw was the polio vaccine rollout. My father saw ill children in three rural hospitals. They banded together to make a helicopter available to him, so he could go place to place to give the polio vaccine because the doctor had to give it. My brother and I went with him on that helicopter, and we sat there for hours watching him give out that vaccine to all those people. I will never forget it.
Fast forward to 2009 when we had H1N1: I was running a clinic in the inner city in East St. Louis, Illinois. We were working with schools, daycares, and Head Start programs. I think we had about 6,000 kids we needed to vaccinate. I remember pulling up that memory about what it looked like there because I had never done mass distribution before, but I remembered the polio vaccine rollout, and I thought we can get a system going and do it just like we accomplished that rollout. With the team of faculty and about 120 nursing students, that is exactly what we did. As I recall, we vaccinated about 18,000-19,000 people in three months.
Is there any type of breakthrough in nursing you wish you had made?
I think nurses are creative and innovative professionals. During my career I have worked with or watched as nurse colleagues addressed needs or improved care. I personally have developed and sold several patents, and I think they were improvements to health care. If I saw something that needed to get fixed, I figured out how to fix it and we fixed it or addressed it some way. One was a software program that predicts outcomes in terms of clinical, financial, and quality.
When you measure a wound, there is a variance in how you measure. The way we do it is you take a Q-tip, put it on the wound and then you take it up against the measuring stick. Well, when you are taking it from one place to the next, you can move your fingers, so your measurements are not going to be accurate. So, I developed a measuring device called The Evaluator. I had it made from soybeans, so you could flush it or throw it into the biohazard bin. It had the marks built into the swabs.
Was there a mistake or lesson you learned that had the biggest impact on you?
Early on in my career, I made a horrible mistake. In those days, nurses had large patients loads. I worked on a medical surgical ward. Those people were sick, and the surgeries were extensive; we didn't have ICU in those days. I was working the 3-to-11 shift. I had 22 patients one night, and 19 of the 22 patients had (had) surgery that day. That meant I had 19 IVs to deal with and then numerous antibiotic piggybacks.
I had to give four units of blood to two patients, and the two patients were across the hall, Room 119 and Room 127. The mistake was — and this was before we checked medicines and blood closely — I hung the wrong unit of blood on the wrong patient. Instinctually though, I (realized) it … and something spoke to me, “Stop the blood.” So, I stopped, and it was maybe 10 inches from going into the patient. I looked at the ID card on the blood bag and saw it was the wrong patient. The patient's husband was sitting there, and asked, “Is there something wrong?” And I said, “Yes, I hung the wrong unit of blood on your wife.” She did not get any of it. I discontinued it, took it out, went to the station, into the bathroom, and I just vomited. I did not want to go back to work ever, but I had to stay.
I tell the students, you may make a mistake, but you must own it. My head nurse and the director of nursing said I did not have enough help. I owned it, and they knew I wasn't that kind of a person to make that kind of a mistake, but the staffing pattern changed after that. We had two LPNs with us besides just a nurse for 25 patients. Now, students have maybe five patients. So that was a lot of patients to be taking care of.
How do you unwind?
I like to ride a bike, being outside. I read a lot since COVID happened. I started binge-watching on Netflix, just like everybody else. I’m watching Shameless, Bridgerton, Designated Survivor. I have taken acting lessons before; I never did theater production or community production, just little stuff.
You're on a desert Island. What music would you have with you?
What is something surprising that people may not know about you?
I was adopted. I didn't know that until I was 24. When I was 40, I found out my biological mother was a nun. That was kind of a traumatic thing to find out at a late stage in my life. I had been working with some sisters at this convent hospital in Southern Illinois. I was doing rehab on a nun who had her bladder taken out, and she (let me know) she knew my mother, an Irish nun named Colleen. This nun that day told me (Colleen had) died a few years before, which I don't know whether I believe or not, because she was a little bit shocked when she found out who I was. I asked, “Do you remember Dr. Thimsen used to come out here?” because it was about 50 miles from where we lived. She said, “Yes. I knew Dr. Timmy. You're Kathleen.”
Whenever he would go to that hospital, he would take me with him, and the nuns would always kind of pass me around their knees and give me soda and it was always a special treat to get a 7Up with a straw that was a bendy straw. They made all my clothes. They tatted my little dresses, crocheted my socks, and had little tags made for ‘Kathleen’ in my clothes. I didn't realize until later in life that maybe one of those people that I was passed around to sit in their lap was actually my mother.