YWCA Distinguished Young Woman (2018) Heather Rice PhD, APRN-CNP, PMHS studies health inequities, teaches the next generation of nurses at Cleveland State University (CSU), and encourages holistic mental health approaches as a pediatric nurse practitioner in child and adolescent psychiatry in private practice. Dr. Rice currently researches Cleveland organizations in order to help more of the nation’s babies to turn one. Described as goal-oriented and outcome-based, she has the best of both worlds by teaching and practicing the healing arts.
“My passion is having the ability and resources to make an impact on families. Knowing that I can do that absolutely ignites me, and being able to share that knowledge with them, whether through the research I do or coming to see me for the medication management is incredibly rewarding -sometimes these appointments are the first time people have heard of what type of treatment is available for their children” she explained.
“Kids can go through the most traumatic situations yet demonstrate resiliency and bounce back. The first thing I say to my families is: ‘I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a bad child. We will work on seeing the challenges your child is facing and work through this as a team.’”
As an African-American woman, “many students say ‘you are one of the only people here who looks like me with a doctorate so you are inspiring me to pursue an advanced degree”. Her tenacious academic career spanned more than a decade as she earned two bachelor degrees at two different colleges, a master of science in nursing, and a doctorate. “I could have quit at any point, but I went straight through nonstop.”
In the last semester of her doctorate course work, she was rear-ended while at a complete stop at approximately 60 mph. As a result of this accident, she sustained a spinal injury and experiences constant neck and lower back pain. Specialists told her she would never be able to sit long enough or stand long enough to complete her degree. Not wanting to lose her scholarship, she found a practitioner who encouraged water therapy, acupuncture, changing her diet, and altering her environment so she could do her studies standing and sitting.
It was a long road to a PhD, but “after achieving that, nothing is too challenging.” No wonder her story was included in a women’s empowerment program called “Could be Bitter but I’m Better.”
Experiencing racism both personally and professionally and suffering a traumatic spinal injury are not the only challenges that inform her coaching ability. “As an adolescent, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that could have potential deterred my course in life, but my parents were by my side every step of the way. They were my pillars of strength who encouraged me to press on in spite of life’s challenges. I am forever grateful for the role they have in my life.”
Dr. Rice counts being a good listener as her biggest strength and a direct result of her compassion. “For so long I was told I was too sensitive, and that I get too close to my patients. But having understanding of my patient’s circumstances and being compassionate and empathetic has separated me from some providers.” One mom disclosed she had struggled with drug use in her past and told Dr. Rice, “you are the first provider that didn’t make a face or alter your body language when I shared that with you”. “Families I work with, they are so stigmatized and resistance to getting any sort of mental health services…Mental health is not encouraged or stressed as much as it should be. They don’t feel comfortable getting assistance; because they feel they will be judged or not accepted.”
Until this July when she left to join CSU, Dr. Rice’s nursing career at The Centers had at least two highlights. Observing that children with urgent mental health concerns were waiting in order to see the psychiatrist, as their first child and adolescent psychiatric nurse, she was inspired to implement a triage system at The Centers so the most acute cases could be prioritized for treatment. A huge part of her work was engaging the educational system to make accommodations for the mental health needs of students, work that she continues to do in community mental health.
At The Centers, she assisted with mental health assessments, pharmacologic management and health education. She is most proud of a program entitled “Centerbration” where she levered partnerships with art therapy students which led to the development of a mural that can be found inside the Gordon Square offices. It was the first time The Centers brought children and adolescents from its Gordon Square and West location together to do a group art therapy project.
As a nurse practitioner, now Rice prescribes medication, examines patients, diagnoses illnesses, and provides treatment. “When I was a nurse, I wasn’t prescribing medication. Now that I am, I have to continue to advocate for counseling and school accommodations and good rest and nutrition. Sometimes there is a misconception that “medications fix everything’”. Many behavioral and environmental modifications work together; “My biggest challenge is selling the primary interventions that are just as important as the medication piece.”
At CSU, she teaches the mental health clinical for nursing students and will be researching chronic stress, neighborhood conditions, and infant mortality. “I will be collaborating with area groups and utilizing community health workers and doulas to provide health education while also highlighting what is working in the community in regards to new moms that are high-risk.”
“I was always discouraged to try to pursue all three. ‘Nurse practitioner, researcher or to be a professor.’ I am in an environment that is encouraging me to pursue all three.” CSU values professors that are still practicing as they give students a true world view of current practices. “When I accepted, I was honest that I still wanted to practice and they encouraged that.” “I like being able to have an impact in several ways being able to speak, teach, and doing research. What I like the most about CSU is I have an amazing group of students that are eager to learn. A lot are from the Cleveland area and want to remain in the Cleveland area. I like being able to mold them and shape them because they are the next generation of nurses.”
An active clinician, her research has been rooted in health equity. Her dissertation was on youth involved in the juvenile justice system using a concept of neighborhood disorganization. This concept scores multiple factors that impact a community. She compared the health of incarcerated youth to youth from multiple zip codes all across the state of Ohio: urban, suburban, rural. She is continuing to use the zipcode-based analytical tool in her current research into neighborhood impacts on infant mortality and health in general. She is also asking women to define their neighborhoods, which will add texture to her data analysis.
“There is a huge deficit of services for the inner city and people of color. There are implicit biases that keep people from getting both access to care and quality care… So many women talk about their birthing experience, in how it was different from other women.” Her research project is called HOPS, which stands for Healthy Options for Parenting Success.
“Some women feel like their birthing experience are under the control of their provider. They don’t feel they have the ability to have things explained in greater detail.” The language providers use with parents that are already scared and nervous which make them less able to understand, Rice further explained.
Studying the best practices of groups in Cleveland, Rice aims to share with the nation what is working well. Successful Cleveland interventions like Birthing Beautiful Communities can serve as a model to helping moms nationwide with chronic stress and their infants’ health.
As a Cleveland native, Heather has always had an active role in the community. She has served as a volunteer for Circle Health (formally known as the Free Clinic), Boys Hope Girls Hope of Greater Cleveland and MEDWORKS. She is an active member at East View United Church of Christ and has volunteered with various ministries. She enjoys singing with the Greater Cleveland Choral Chapter as well as in Severance Hall’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Chorus. Mentoring has been part of not only her teaching with her nursing students, but also her community service as an active participant in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.’s teen mom support group.
“I have always loved the quote ‘empowered women empower women.’ To me it captures the essence of what it truly means to empower others. Life has blessed me through my professional work and mentorship opportunities to work directly with young ladies. I find joy in helping them to find their voice and build the courage to be active and informed participants in their healthcare. Once a young woman discovers her inner strength I believe that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to.”
It is easy to see why she was Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club Northeast Ohio’s Top 25 Under 35 Movers and Shakers Awardee and Case Western Reserve University’s Civic Engagement Scholar Awardee as a doctoral student. Although, “becoming the first woman in my family to obtain a doctoral degree has absolutely been my greatest accomplishment and achievement to date.”
“I have always admired the passion that true Clevelanders have for this city. This city is truly an under-appreciated gem full of talented, compassionate and driven change agents that see the needs of our community and want to make a lasting impact.” And Cleveland is proud to call Dr. Rice one of their home-grown.