How Family Loss Inspired a DNP Student’s Journey into Nursing and Her Style of Patient Care

How Family Loss Inspired a DNP Student’s Journey into Nursing and Her Style of Patient Care

Anthonia “Tonia” Okoh is about to begin her final semester as a full-time Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) student this spring at USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science. 

Taking a full-time doctoral course load would be enough for many students. But for Anthonia, she’s been juggling the program while working as an emergency nurse and taking care of her three children during her husband’s deployments in the U.S. Navy. 

The drive that pushes her through these challenges is personal. It’s rooted in her desire to help others after dealing with her family’s unfortunate medical experiences.

“I don’t want what happened to my parents to happen to someone else. At the end of the day, if I have the knowledge, maybe I’ll be able to save someone’s life. It doesn't have to be my family but maybe somebody else,” she said. 

While at home in Nigeria, Anthonia got her first introduction to patient care by helping her mother take care of her father after he had a stroke. Shortly after that, her mom got misdiagnosed and passed away just two days after getting surgery. These tragic memories have stayed with Anthonia, and ultimately encouraged her to transition from a career in computer science to nursing. 

After moving to the U.S. to be closer to her husband, who was stationed in the U.S. Navy, she applied to USD’s Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN) in 2015 and was accepted. 

“It was rough. It’s an accelerated program,” she said.

And while it was a fast-paced program, one of the most difficult parts was thinking about her mom. She remembers getting “teary-eyed” in the back of the classroom, thinking about how the knowledge she was quickly gaining could have, possibly, saved her mom. At one point in the program, she had to face these memories head-on during a class exercise where students were encouraged to share something about themselves. 

Prior to this class exercise, Anthonia hadn’t talked openly about her mom’s passing after eight years – even to her siblings and husband. That day in class, it all changed.

“A huge load of weight was lifted off of me so that I can give myself to nursing, and serve the people I’m supposed to be taking care of, as if they are my own family members,” she shared. “I couldn’t take care of my parents back then because I lacked the knowledge, or my siblings lacked the knowledge, and (when) I see my patients – what I’m doing for them, I’m doing for my parents – I will take care of them to the best of my abilities.”

After graduating from the MEPN program in 2017, Anthonia got a job as an emergency nurse. But, a few years later, she felt the urge for her next life challenge.

“I was working as an ER nurse, (then) COVID hit. We were losing a lot of nurses. I said to myself – ‘what’s next?’ I kept asking myself ‘what’s next?’ I’ve grown from being a novice in the nursing field,” she said. 

So, she decided to apply to USD’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Emergency Care program and started in the fall of 2020 after reviewing other school programs with many devoid of clinical simulations. Today, the program is helping her grow as a nurse and, most importantly, has encouraged her to look at the role of the patient-nurse rapport. One learning exercise, in particular, helped Anthonia: the simulation training, an experience where nursing students are paired with an actor who acts like a real patient.

As an ER nurse, Anthonia was trained to keep her patients alive without much time for anything else. So, it was no surprise that during her simulation exercise she was yelling out commands and keeping the patient’s appointment short – like she would in the ER. After the exercise, Anthonia’s reviews from the actor were less than stellar. The actor shared that Anthonia obviously knew what she was doing but that, as a patient, they didn’t feel any connection to her. 

“I read that and I was heartbroken. I thought I did well. I thought that was what was needed. Getting that feedback, I was like, ‘oh my God, this is how a patient perceives me if I’m at clinical or at work, someone who is devoid of emotions – she’s just treating their symptoms, medication them and discharging or admitting them. There is really not enough time to connect deeply with a patient in an ER setting,” she said. 

This was a full circle moment for Anthonia – teaching her the importance of building rapport with her patients, in the same way she wanted someone to connect with her own family when they are in the hospital. After she graduates in the spring, she’s looking to continue her work in the emergency department with a new sense of commitment to the patient-provider relationship, ensuring the delivery of patient-centered care, and to possibly bring her nursing education back home to Nigeria to help her community in the future. 


Elena Gomez
(619) 260-2739