Science and Compassion are not Mutually Exclusive

Wenoah Veikley



Infectious Disease and Forensic Nurse

Q: In what field of science do you work, and what is your role?

I am a registered nurse with a degree in science.

My specialties have evolved over the years, so I work primarily in infectious disease, specifically sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and as a forensic nurse, which means I provide medical care to victims of sexual and domestic violence. Additionally, I am also a clinical researcher, which means my research work usually involves human subjects, often taking new drugs to treat HIV and/or Hepatitis C (HCV).


Q: What inspired you to pursue this path?

I remember thinking I would never ever, ever want to be nurse or a doctor. I am like a fainting goat, so if you come at me with a needle I am going to pass out cold. I have given myself multiple concussions in doctors' offices after I have had my own blood taken, so nursing was a little counterintuitive. But, I had been living overseas on an exchange program after I left high school and many of the children where I was living in a remote area of Indonesia had a commonly acquired eye infection. Someone in Canada was willing to ship us eye drops, but the kids wouldn't let anyone put the eye drops in because they would sting. I do well with kids, so I figured if I put candy in my pockets, they would let me put the eye drops in if they knew they'd get candy when we were done. We managed to eradicate the infection in the community I was staying in, in about a month and half or so. Somehow, word got out that I could take care of people, which meant I would receive random visits from people who had incurred injuries like burns or fractures, or, once, a man had cut the top of his foot wide open with a machete and presented with gangrene asking for help. We didn't have any sophisticated medical equipment or training, and most of the time I would simply reinforce that people needed to seek formal medical attention. Though I had no medical experience at the time, it became apparent that if you can relate to people in a respectful way, you can earn their trust and engage them around their health. It was also something that was easily transportable. I had acquired a taste for traveling very early, and when I realized I could engage with people — whether it was kids or adults — in a way that incurred their trust and could impact their health, it was like, well, OK, maybe that's not the worst idea. If I can figure out how not to pass out every time someone sticks me with a needle, maybe I can do this.


Q: Are there any obstacles you've faced in this field?

One of the things I tell people when I talk about my work is that you have to be prepared for the fact that working in the field of (STIs) or forensic nursing, where sexual violence is the topic, there is going to be spillover into your personal life. STI and forensic work affects our perceptions of ourselves and our behavior, our intimate relationships, and the choices we make. It also makes us acutely aware of the information that is or isn't available to us. If someone was picking a career in nursing science, I would want them to know that people are going to share information about themselves they wouldn't ever tell anyone else, and let you examine parts of their bodies they wouldn’t allow anyone else to see. Nurses are widely regarded as one of the, if not the, most trusted professions, which is a really lovely position to be in, to know that people have an affection and respect for the work. But it can also be a little daunting when your work shifts your own thinking about your own body, or relationships, or the people around you.

If you're going to need to ask people really personal questions and examine them in an incredibly personal way, you are going to have to be really, really open minded and respectful, and non-judgmental. Whatever your own personal context is, you can't expect to not be affected by what you are hearing or seeing.


Q: Do you have any advice for others?

Do not be discouraged by the stereotypes associated with nursing. What I've encountered is, "You're a nurse because you're a woman; you're a nurse because you couldn't be a doctor," that nursing is somehow less scientific than medicine.

I think those stereotypes run the risk of creating a perception that somehow nursing is less than medicine or science. What I have seen over the 16 years I have been practicing as a nurse is this: Nursing is absolutely science, and it is evolving, and there are endless opportunities. Many of the nurses that I know are brilliant, engaged, and very science oriented. There's this weird external perception that we're nurses because we are touchy-feely and not science oriented. I feel like science and empathy and compassion are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Nursing and the interventions that occur between a nurse and their patient or their community have very, very significant impacts and are very evidence based.

What I tell people, including my students, is this: I work with amazing doctors who diagnose and treat disease, and I work with amazing nurses who provide the care to the people that live with those conditions. Those are completely different processes, but one is no less valuable and no less scientific than the other.


Q: Is there anything that changed your path from where you started?

I became a nurse thinking I would be able to work with people. Eventually I realized if I wanted to make a bigger difference, then I needed to be willing to do bigger work — which means I couldn't just do one-on-one nursing. I had to consider taking on an administrative role, a leadership role. Transitioning into those roles was an opportunity to design programs and take care of communities and not just individuals, to make testing and treatment opportunities available to communities and patients on a larger scale. I think that one of the challenges is always finding the balance between the administrative or programmatic work and the on-the-ground work. I think the only reason I am a decent administrator is because I am connected enough to the actual work and the actual patients to inform the choices about creating more innovative, far-reaching programs, often in resource-poor settings.

Research, clinical care, and administration often represent competing priorities. Research doesn't always create opportunities to generate revenue, but represents a commitment to your community and to the patients. In this political climate, clinical care also doesn't often represent financial stability, and so to preserve the integrity of clinical care and research, it seemed important to have an administrative voice.


Q: So how did you become known as the "Ass Queen"?

People living with HIV are much more likely to be diagnosed with anal cancer. There is a procedure called High Resolution Anoscopy (HRA) where you can identify precancerous changes. Typically, that procedure is only done by doctors or advanced practice clinicians. New Mexico doesn't have a lot of providers, and we lost the only two providers that were trained to perform that procedure. So even though it doesn't typically fall into a nurse's scope, by necessity and because of my forensic work, I was more familiar with doing the exams than my male counterparts who were physicians. I checked with the board of nursing, our insurance, our lawyers, and the credentialing body, "Would you be willing to allow a nurse to do this?" which is shifting the scope of what I do as a nurse to incorporate managing and preventing anal cancers in my patients. HRA is an extremely intimate examination of a person's anal and genital region. By virtue of the fact that my patients wouldn't have access to that preventive care because of the enormous professional shortages in New Mexico, I became trained in the procedure, and have since become an "expert" in asses. I'm now training three other people how to do this procedure. So New Mexico will have more access to providers who are able to prevent anal cancer in people living with HIV. I will say early in my career, I certainly never saw myself becoming the "Ass Queen."


Q: Is there anything you would change in your field of work?

I am a strong proponent for mentoring female professionals, because I feel like culturally, we as females are built to not promote our skills or advocate for ourselves. There is a lot of data that suggests that a less qualified man who is better at asking for something will advance much faster than a more qualified female that is not comfortable asking. I would say that in science and executive roles it is at least as true as it is in other professions. There is absolutely a glass ceiling, and you're going to bump up against it if you're not willing to push through it. No one is going to be able to do it for you. I have struggled, because as a female the perception is that if you are too friendly or kind or empathetic, you are too weak to excel at an executive or scientific job. But if you are bold or outspoken, people believe your expectations are too high, you're "too big for your britches," and you make people uncomfortable. As women, we need to learn to get comfortable with being less self-deprecating. Own your place in the universe and be proud of what you do and what you're capable of. Absolutely ask or demand what is rightfully yours, because the professional universe has not yet acclimated to the idea that women are at least as capable of any of these roles as men are. It's taken us a while to claim our seat at the table.

I have worked with extraordinary colleagues and mentors over the last decade and a half. The most powerful mentor in my life was a man who never ever questioned my ability to do anything. He and I worked together for 14 years. Though I am not a shrinking violet, he always reminded me that I need to be assertive. Expect and demand the promotion, the title, because words matter, more money, a seat at the table. We have to be comfortable claiming our place.


Q: What is something you want to discover or explore in your professional field?

I work in a setting where I have to engage with people about really personal things. And sex is as natural for humans as eating and drinking. Intimacy and sex is what comes natural to us. So one of the things I would love to do is destigmatize sexuality. All of my work, whether it is in infectious disease or forensics, is related to sexuality. It's about our choices, about "normal" sex or "not-normal" sex, safe sex or not safe sex, consensual sex or nonconsensual sex. I want to create a safe place for people to have access to the information or education they need to make their own choices — not good or bad, just informed. I want everyone to have access to the care they need, and access to the tools they need to enjoy sex without living in fear. It is so hard to create a space that is accessible, affordable and in a way that people trust what you have to offer.

Technically my work is in science and administration, but for me, how the science translates into the human experience is the critical element. It doesn't matter if I have all the drugs in the world. If I can't engage a person in a meaningful way they are not going to tell me what they need. If I can't meet someone where they're at and speak in language that has meaning for them, if they don’t feel safe sharing their questions and their concerns, the drugs won't cure anything. So creating that space and helping normalize the conversation is critical.

Everything that I do professionally is related to the human condition as it relates to sexuality.

I've got all the science in the world, but without the ability to connect and have that safe conversation, none of that science amounts to a hill of beans.

Wenoah was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, in a family where we she was taught to believe everything is possible. She studied at Sorbonne and the University of Alberta. For the last 48 years she has spent her time working hard, hanging with the people she loves, and exploring opportunities she didn't even realize existed. She is grateful every single day. 

Words: Wenoah Veikley