Perseverance in health care: Donny Freeman’s nursing journey

Donny FreemanDonald “Donny” Freeman, clinical operations coordinator of HSC Health Correctional Medicine, knows hard work.

For more than 20 years, he was a transportation worker before deciding to leave everything he knew to start a career in health care. Freeman is constantly bettering himself, progressing from medical assistant to licensed vocational nurse, and is on track to graduate as a registered nurse in spring 2023.

It’s never too late to make a change

“I started getting information about changing careers and I was like ‘Wow, this is kind of something I want to do,’” he said. “So that was the opportunity – the door opened for me and I ran through. I went to MA school, then did my externship at UNT.”

Freeman said he feels lucky to have been hired at HSC because it was a stepping stone to his career advancement.

“If I didn’t do my externship here, I probably wouldn’t have thought to apply here as an MA, and then the progression from that department to this one,” he said. “I don’t know that any of this would’ve happened without working at UNT.”

Freeman worked in the HSC Health GI department as an MA for seven years, where he first made an impression on Kristi Wright, senior director of correctional medicine, now Freeman’s supervisor.

“Donnie did our GI scheduling, and he was always such a pleasure to work with,” Wright said. “We have 420 providers that we use in the metroplex that we have to contact and there was never a negative thing said about him. So when we had an opening, we hoped he would apply.”

Although the idea to continue to his LVN or RN degree was already on his radar, scheduling his prerequisite classes around his work schedule in GI had been difficult.

“I always want to advance wherever I am, so it’s always been a consideration,” Freeman said. “It just didn’t happen until I was in correctional medicine.”

Wright admits that the stigma surrounding correctional medicine can make recruiting difficult. Because it can be hard to hire in their department, a culture of growth has emerged allowing great employees to go back to school, make more money, and assume more responsibility within the department.

“Donny applied and we brought him up, and I won’t let him go now because he’s just an incredible individual,” she said. “Not only is he a good human, but he’s just a hard worker.”

Freeman is one of several correctional medicine employees who are going back to school, and the team works to cover for each other. Some activities start at 6 a.m., and some last after 5 p.m., so as long as everyone is working 40 hours a week and the clinic is covered, employees are encouraged to pursue another degree if they want.

“When I get good people in here, we want to keep them and we want to grow them here,” Wright said. “We’ve done a wonderful job of making a growth ladder for everybody, so even if you’re going to education, you don’t educate yourself out of a job. We’re going to grow with you.”

Wright has been Freeman’s biggest cheerleader to continue in education, having also walked the path of LVN to RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing, all while working full time with three daughters at home.

“I told Donnie ‘I was like you. If I can do it, you can do it,’” Wright said. “We’re going to push you through. If you have a meltdown, if you just need to talk, we will talk you off the ledge, because we’ve been through it. I’ve been there, and you need a support system to get through nursing school, 1000%.’”

Be the best or don’t mess with it

Freeman credits his father with instilling a drive in him to be the best he can be.

“When I was really young, my dad would say ‘Be the best or don’t mess with it,’” he said with a laugh. “Except he didn’t say ‘mess.’ You know, my dad is old school, but that phrase stuck in my mind.”

Freeman said a strict schedule and patience for delayed gratification are necessary to go to school and work full time, forgoing some of his favorite pastimes, like fishing, camping and TV for a while to enjoy his life more fully later on.

“You just have to keep in mind that it’s temporary, and once you finish school and everything, you’ll get that back,” he said. “It’s one thing to make a schedule for homework, sleep, school, but you have to stick to it hard and fast.”

In the nursing field, there is a natural progression to the pay scale, and you make more as you progress up to BSN, so going back to school comes with a tangible payoff.

“You always meet those people in life where you’re like, ‘You’re just too smart for this,’” Wright said. “I was like ‘Donny, you’re too smart. Why are you not in school?’ He already had the base. He was already doing what LVNs and RNs were doing as far as education, and I could just see it. I’m saying this is just going to be easy for you as far as the knowledge. It’s going to be difficult, but you’re smart enough. You can handle it.”

Freeman is now 56, but he’s not planning to slow down any time soon. Looking back at his younger self with a little more perspective, he said he would encourage young men to refuse to limit themselves before they’ve even tried.

“It all starts with when I decide to do something, I’m going to do it to be the best, and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “When I was younger, I wouldn’t have thought I was smart enough to do this. But other than being an adult and having a little more drive, I wasn’t any less intelligent than I am now. We can’t limit ourselves before we even get started.”

Breaking down misconceptions

Freeman didn’t grow up dreaming of being a nurse one day. There weren’t many role models in the nursing field for a young Black man.

“When I was a kid, nurses were always women,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because women are naturally more caring and nurturing by nature … Back in the day, guys just didn’t think of it that way because women were nurses and they were macho. It’s an outdated perception.”

However, the industry needs more male nurses to engage. Wright reports that they very rarely have male applicants for open positions, and there are only two male LVNs working in their department as of press time.

“We need more male nurses,” she said. “A lot of men feel more comfortable if they have a male nurse to talk to, especially when it comes to personal issues, but the male ratio is really low.”

In addition to the gender gap, the racial breakdown of the health care field as reported in 2018 by the American Association of Medical Colleges found that only 5% of health care workers identify as African American, while 56% identify as white.

“We have this preconceived notion because it’s a predominantly caucasian profession, so we have that in our minds,” Freeman said. “And then we start thinking, ‘Well, I’m not smart enough’ or ‘They wouldn’t choose me.’ I think sometimes we’re stereotyping ourselves before we even get started.”

By showing up, working hard and being himself, Freeman is bringing representation for African American men to health care. Maybe more young men of the next generation can see themselves in his shoes and will grow up with the dream of becoming a nurse.

Care For All Human Beings

Working in correctional medicine presents unique challenges and patient experiences along with growth opportunities. When asked what their jobs are in very simplified terms, both Freeman and Wright expressed statements of grace and compassion for their patients.

“My job is to care for all human beings,” Freeman said. “That starts in your heart. You have to care about the human being first before you can care enough to see it all way to the end, to make sure they’re better at the end of their visit or to make them feel better.”

This idea that care begins in the heart and mind of the provider is emphasized by Wright’s encouragement that her team never Google an inmate.

“It’s public knowledge but we’re not here to judge,” she said. “It’s not our job. They’ve already been judged in a court of law. That’s why they’re here. We’re here to treat them and make sure they get better. That’s our job.”

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