Health + Behavior

Nursing professor’s visit to United Nations leaves indelible mark

MarySue Heilemann says serving as a delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women will influence her teaching and scholarship

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MarySue Heilemann
Gregg Chadwick/UCLA

MarySue Heilemann at the Women Illuminated Film Festival in March 2018 for a screening of her film “Catalina,” which was later shown at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

When the UCLA School of Nursing’s MarySue Heilemann was invited to be a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women earlier this year, she knew it would be a special experience. She just didn’t know how special. Or how far-reaching.

“It was experience after experience after experience of just being so inspired by the dedicated, talented people who want to improve the conditions of living for women and girls worldwide,” Heilemann said of her time at the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, attended by more than 6,000 representatives of member states, UN entities and accredited non-governmental organizations from all over the world.

Heilemann’s route to becoming a delegate to the session was long and unexpected. Several years ago, having published an article on the portrayals of nurses in the media, she was asked to work with a group that wanted to create a television show featuring nurses. The show never came to fruition but one of its creators, Sheva Carr, remembered Heilemann’s work and, three years later, asked if she could nominate her to become a delegate through Pathways to Peace, a non-governmental organization whose delegation Carr headed.

After a lengthy interview process, Heilemann, associate professor of nursing at UCLA, was accepted and invited to participate in the session’s film festival and serve on a panel about media portrayals of women.

That March week in New York City was a whirlwind for Heilemann, who gave two well-received presentations. While serving on the panel, Heilemann talked about how inaccurate media portrayals of nurses are not helping to reduce the global shortage in the profession. The World Health Organization estimates that the world will need an additional 9 million nurses and midwives by the year 2030.

She pointed out the harm that is done to the nursing profession’s reputation when its members are depicted as sex toys, as in countless B-movies, or as battle axes, such as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’’ Perhaps even more damaging, Heilemann noted, is the absence of any significant roles for nurses on TV’s popular medical series, such as “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Heilemann also had the opportunity to screen and discuss her transmedia project, “Catalina: Confronting My Emotions,” which uses a story and characters to help Latinas struggling with depression or anxiety get help. An empathic nurse-therapist character, Veronica, helps viewers just as she helps the main character of the story, Catalina, overcome taboos about seeking mental health care.

The rest of the week, Heilemann immersed herself in presentations and meetings with delegates and others who are working to improve the lives of women around the globe, from getting clean water to having access to education and technology like the internet.

“The sessions opened doors to connect with all kinds of people who care deeply about these issues and want to make meaningful change,” Heilemann said. “It was astonishing to see how many people care about what happens to women across the globe and are actively doing something about it right now.

“I will never be the same,” said Heilemann, who has brought some of the highlights of her UN experience back to UCLA.

Shortly after her return, Heilemann spoke with students in two classes at the nursing school about the UN and her experiences there. A few weeks later she spoke at a meeting of a student group concerned with world health issues, Global Action in Nursing.

Then came an invitation to address the June opening ceremonies of the Model United Nations Summer Institute at UCLA. Model UN is a program for high school students and the summer institute included about 90 students from around the United States and from several other counties.

“The students were exceptionally sharp; they asked amazing questions about nursing,” Heilemann said, adding that all her talks about her UN experience made her realize there was a hunger among students to learn and do more.

Heilemann, whose status as a delegate lasts for one year, plans to keep drawing on her UN experience to enhance the programs at UCLA. During the film fest that included “Catalina,” Heilemann met Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, a Jain monk in Arizona, whose team had made a film on stopping sex-trafficking. Heilemann is working to bring Shree to speak to a global health class at the nursing school.

“When I got back to UCLA, I realized I have to keep sharing what I learned at the UN to help students realize how citizens can be involved in the idea-sharing that goes on at the UN Commission on the Status of Women today,” Heilemann said.

“Just knowing that I am able to connect people to each other as a result of my experiences at the UN is valuable for UCLA and for students,” Heilemann added. “There’s definitely a ripple effect.”

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