Posted on May 7, 2018

Fulfilling a Childhood Dream: Dr. Pon’s Unconventional Path into Nursing

Fulfilling a Childhood Dream: Dr. Pon’s Unconventional Path into Nursing

Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.

For College of Nursing associate professor Dr. Ponrathi Athilingam, PhD, ACNP, MCH, FAANP, FHFSA, that inspiration came from a leper living under a banyan tree outside a remote Indian village.

She encountered this neighbor every day on her walk to and from school.

This is how Dr. Pon’s unconventional path into nursing and nursing research began. But she didn’t know it at the time.

All she knew was that she wanted to help this man — a neighbor, husband, father of two — who was banished from her village and forced to live under the tree, because he had leprosy. He lived there rain or shine, and each day, his wife would bring food to him or come take his trash.

“Growing up, I always thought, ‘I need to help lepers,’ because I wanted to help him,” she said.

Dr. Pon believed the only way to help lepers was to become a doctor. But after high school, as she watched classmates enter college, medical school was not an option for her. Her family was too poor. So she worked odd jobs to help contribute to her family’s finances.

It was at one of those jobs that a chat with a former principal opened her eyes into the possibility of a nursing career, which changed the direction of her life.

Dr. Pon worked at a construction company where she brought water for the workers. One of the job sites happened to be at her former high school. When the building work was completed, she went to see her former high school principal, Mr. James, to collect her pay. That’s when he asked about her dream of helping lepers.

“I said, ‘Ah, the dream is a dream. Unless God helps me, I can’t do anything.’ It was then that Mr. James told me, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a nurse? Because it is the nurses who are in the forefront to help patients and lepers,’ ” she said.

Those few words pushed her to apply to two local Christian nursing schools that offered student scholarships. During her interview at the Salvation Army Hospital, she saw they had a 100-bed leprosy rehabilitation center, and she knew that is where she belonged.

“I was just wowed by the privilege God gave me to care for lepers during my nursing diploma training,” she said.

The Salvation Army Catherine Booth Hospital is a hospital and nursing school in Nagercoil, India. It is named after the wife of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.

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Childhood Dream realized, then reimagined

Dr. Pon’s dream of helping lepers led her into a nursing career, which has spanned more than four decades.

After earning her nursing diploma, she moved to the city of New Delhi where she worked and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the All India Institute of Medical Science. After graduation, she returned to working in a hospital in her rural Indian village where she started her own leprosy rehabilitation program.

Soon, Dr. Pon became instrumental in developing and redesigning a successful rural leprosy rehabilitation center in a Christian community health center, while working at the school of nursing. Her impressive work was recognized when the American Leprosy Organization, based in New Jersey, came for a site visit to develop similar leprosy centers throughout India.

The organization also offered her a scholarship to study in England to get her master’s degree in community health. When she returned to India and worked at the school of nursing and the leprosy center, she saw an advertisement searching for nurses to work in the United States to address the nursing shortage in 1990.

She applied, got accepted, and came to the U.S. on an employment visa and worked at a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. At the Brookdale Medical Center, she worked in the intensive care unit and that’s where her passion to help others took a different turn.

As a nurse in the ICU, Dr. Pon saw many heart failure patients. She would teach them how to take care of themselves at home, but those same patients would soon return within a week or two.

“It was the heart failure patients who opened my eyes, and I said, ‘I needed to do something to help with self-care at home,’ ” she said.

Seeing these recurring heart failure visits inspired her to become a nurse practitioner and pursue her PhD, doctorate in health practice research, specializing in cardiology and heart failure.

Throughout her nursing and research career, Dr. Pon’s patients have inspired her next move, aided by divine intervention.

That was the case when she the developed HeartMapp, a smartphone app that helps heart failure patients in self-management at home.

Having never owned a smart phone, Dr. Pon had a recurring dream in which she kept seeing heart failure patients entering data into their mobile phones. The next day, an email popped up about Dr. Miguel Labrador, an award-winning USF engineering professor who makes phone apps. She knew the two were linked.

“I sat here at this same desk, and prayed. I sent an email to the professor. I said, ‘If I get a reply within 48 hours, I know this is the will of God and I will go with my dream.’ In two hours, Dr. Labrador sent me a reply. Now we have an app,” she said. “From nothing to something is all God’s plan. I truly believe that he has a plan for this.”

“When I look back, I only thank God, for everything that he has done in my life,” she said. “Through all my struggles and difficulties with my poverty and rejection from my community for becoming a nurse, I   believed in him. Because 40 years ago, nursing was not considered a profession for women in my caste.”

Dr. Pon shares her life story with students and hopes to instill in them the importance of education and the ability to overcome any obstacles when pursuing their passion, whether it is nursing or something else.

“Nobody forced me to help lepers. It came from within,” she said. “Nursing is not a job. It’s a calling. Unless you’re called to do it, nursing will not be a profession for you.”

“I am proud to be a nurse for more than 45 years,” she said. “I have worked in many roles — as a nurse, nurse manager, educator, and researcher. In all my roles, my patients come first. I am involved in research to promote health and well-being of my patients; always striving to raise the standards of my own practice and my profession.”

Story by Elizabeth L. Brown, USF College of Nursing