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AFN Impact: Inquiry, Outreach, Collaboration, and Persistence = Inspiring!

Written by Dr. Kathleen Thimsen, AFN Treasurer

As I listened to Dr. Kelly Berishaj’s recounting of her nursing journey, I was impressed by her sense of inquiry and persistence that emerged while she discussed how she arrived at her position in forensic nursing today.

Kelly Berishaj, DNP, RN, ACNS-BC, AFN-C, SANE-A, DF-AFN. She is program director at Oakland University, and a board member of the Forensic Nursing Certification Board.

Kelly began her nursing career with her BSN at Madonna University in Michigan where she spent time as a student but also served as tutor to fellow students. She worked for 13 years after graduation at Detroit Medical Center's Harper University Hospital where the primary population served were vulnerable individuals with significant health disparities. Like many of us, having those experiences created an appreciation for resilience and thrivership that is achieved through persistence.

She left the hospital and worked briefly in a suburban hospital where the patient population had more resources, but Kelly suffered from culture shock and eventually returned to the Harper University Hospital to serve the vulnerable. She had an extensive career in med-surg, step-down unit, and the ICU.

Again, like many of us who serve in a dedicated fashion, she became interested in looking at other options to find a position as an instructor at Oakland University – despite having a BSN and no academic experience. She was fortunate to have had great mentors and was supported by Dr. Barb Pempras. She was inspired to continue her education and obtain her MSN and finally her DNP.

She was spread pretty thin in those early days, but with persistence, inspiration, and encouragement from her mentors she not only achieved education beyond her dreams, but she also yielded to her sense of inquiry to ask what her values were, and what and where could she make an impact. Her first dean was Dr. Kerri Schuiling, a midwife who asked her about becoming a SANE nurse. Kelly thought, “Well, I have familiarity with people coming from a place of trauma and dysfunction, and I certainly understand the challenges some people experience. I think I can do this SANE position.”

After attending SANE training at University of Iowa – Linda Ledray’s course – her dean sent her on a mission to get training across the country to become knowledgeable and skilled at all aspects of the role of the forensic nurse. She then proposed the idea of a forensic nursing program at Oakland University. She developed a comprehensive proposal along with a curriculum in 2014, as a Masters-track program. Ten years and 10 MSN cohorts later, she has served as the program director since its inception and will turn over the reins in the fall of 2024 to a new nursing director. This will enable Kelly to move to the university level where she will collaborate with interprofessional partners to create the Institute of Forensic Excellence at Oakland.

In order for that to occur, Kelly and the interprofessional team of forensically focused members — representing the fields of medicine, engineering, psychology, and nursing — have been working on several intriguing projects. Kelly has taken the helm to create a university-wide Trauma Informed Interprofessional Educational Taskforce.

Additionally, Oakland University, University of Michigan-Flint, and Wayne State University secured a National Science Foundation grant to study “human computer interaction (HCI) to study online to offline sexual violence among persons using dating apps.” The study is in the second year of the four-year funded work. Kelly and one of her students will be presenting this February at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences on findings to date.

When we were ending our conversation for the interview, I asked Kelly what made the difference in her life and how did she come to have such a keen sense of inquiry? Despite learning curves and disappointments, how did she persist and continue with her forward march? Her response was, “Well, I have been called a used car salesman and a bill collector, but I also got encouragement from my mentors who always fueled my energy to keep asking questions and looking at opportunities.” I hope this leaves you feeling as inspired as I feel.

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