Abdellah, Faye Glenn
Faye Glenn Abdellah
Faye Glenn Abdellah (born 1919) dedicated her life to nursing and, as a researcher and educator, helped change the profession's focus from a disease-centered approach to a patient-centered approach. She served as a public health nurse for 40 years, helping to educate Americans about the needs of the elderly and the dangers posed by AIDS, addiction, smoking, and violence. As a nursing professor, she developed teaching methods based on scientific research. Abdellah continued to work as a leader in the nursing profession into her eighties.
Abdellah was born on March 13, 1919, in New York City. Years later, on May 6, 1937, the German hydrogen-fueled airship Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey, where 18-year-old Abdellah and her family then lived, and Abdellah and her brother ran to the scene to help. In an interview with a writer for Advance for Nurses, Abdellah recalled: "I could see people jumping from the zeppelin and I didn't know how to take care of them, so it was then that I vowed that I would learn nursing."
Abdellah earned a nursing diploma from Fitkin Memorial Hospital's School of Nursing (now Ann May School of Nursing). In the 1940s, this was sufficient for practicing nursing, but Abdellah believed that nursing care should be based on research, not hours of care. She went on to earn three degrees from Columbia University: a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1945, a master of arts degree in physiology in 1947 and a doctor of education degree in 1955.
With her advanced education, Abdellah could have chosen to become a doctor. However, as she explained in her Advance for Nurses interview, "I never wanted to be an M.D. because I could do all I wanted to do in nursing, which is a caring profession." As a practicing nurse, Abdellah managed a primary care clinic at the Child Education Foundation in New York City and managed the obstetrics gynecology floor at Columbia University's Presbyterian Medical Center.
Transformed Nursing Profession
Abdellah went on to become a nursing instructor and researcher and helped transform the focus of the profession from disease centered to patient centered. She expanded the role of nurses to include care of families and the elderly. She researched nursing practices and taught research methods and theory at several universities, including schools in Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, and South Carolina. She also held several administrative positions in medical facilities. In 1993 she founded and served as the first dean of the Graduate School of Nursing at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
Abdellah's first teaching job was at Yale University School of Nursing, where she worked when she was in her early twenties. At that time she was required to teach a class called "120 Principles of Nursing Practice," using a standard nursing textbook published by the National League for Nursing. The book included guidelines that had no scientific basis and, as Abdellah told Maura S. McAuliffe in an interview for Image: "Those Yale students were just brilliant and challenged me to explain why they were required to follow procedures without questioning the science behind them." After a year Abdellah became so frustrated that she gathered her colleagues in the Yale courtyard and burned the textbooks. The next morning the school's dean told her she would have to pay for the destroyed texts. It took a year for Abdellah to settle the debt, but she never regretted her actions. As she told Image: "Of the 120 principles I was required to teach, I really spent the rest of my life undoing that teaching, because it started me on the long road in pursuit of the scientific basis of our practice."
Abdellah was an advocate of degree programs for nursing. Diploma programs, she believes, were never meant to prepare nurses at the professional level. Nursing education, she argued, should be based on research; she herself became among the first in her role as an educator to focus on theory and research. Her first studies were qualitative; they simply described situations. As her career progressed, her research evolved to include physiology, chemistry, and behavioral sciences.
In 1957 Abdellah headed a research team in Manchester, Connecticut, that established the groundwork for what became known as progressive patient care. In this framework, critical care patients were treated in an intensive care unit, followed by a transition to immediate care, and then home care. The first two segments of the care program proved very popular within the caregiver profession. Abdellah is also credited with developing the first nationally tested coronary care unit as an outgrowth of her work in Manchester.
The third phase of the progressive patient care equation—home care—was not widely accepted in the mid-twentieth century. Abdellah explained in her Image interview that "Short-sighted people at the time kept saying home care would mean having a maid (nurse) in everyone's home. They could not understand that home care with nurses teaching self care would be a way of helping patients regain independent function." Forty years later home care had become an essential part of long-term health care.
In another innovation within her field, Abdellah developed the Patient Assessment of Care Evaluation (PACE), a system of standards used to measure the relative quality of individual health-care facilities that was still used in the health care industry into the 21st century. She was also one of the first people in the health care industry to develop a classification system for patient care and patient-oriented records. Classification systems have evolved in different ways within in the health-care industry, and Abdellah's work was foundational in the development of the most widely used form: Diagnostic related groups, or DRGs. DRGs, which became the standard coding system used by Medicare, categorize patients according to particular primary and secondary diagnoses. This system keeps health-care costs down because each DRG code includes the maximum amount Medicare will pay out for a specific diagnosis or procedure, while also taking into account patient age and length of stay in a health care facility. Providers are given an incentive to keep costs down because they only realize a profit if costs are less than the amount specified by the relevant DRG category.
In addition to leading to the DRG system, Abdellah's work with classification has been instrumental in the ongoing development of an international classification system for nursing practice. As she explained in Image, "There is a major effort ongoing to develop an international classification for nursing practice—to provide a unifying framework for nursing."
Served in Military
Abdellah served for 40 years in the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps, a branch of the military. She served on active duty during the Korean War and was the first nurse officer to achieve the rank of two-star rear admiral. Outside her wartime work, as a public health nurse, she focused much of her attention on care of the elderly. She was one of the first to talk about gerontological nursing, to conduct research in that area, and to influence public policy regarding nursing homes. During the 1970s she was responsible for establishing nursing-home standards in the United States. Abdellah checked on nursing homes by making unannounced visits and wandering throughout the facility checking areas visitors rarely saw. She found many fire hazards and also discovered that it was often hard to trace ownership of nursing homes. Abdellah's scrutiny was not welcomed, even by the licensing boards charged with looking out for their elderly patients, and some states prohibited Abdellah and others from making unannounced visits.
Abdellah has frequently stated that she believes nurses should be more involved in public-policy discussions concerning nursing home regulations. As she told Image, "Our general attitude is let someone else do it. We need to make inroads in counties, states, and regions before we get to the federal level. Then we can have more of a voice at the national level.… I am convinced that if we want to have an effect on legislators, the most important way is to get nurses assigned as congressional fellows … 'they' are the ones who actually draft the legislation."
In 1981 U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop named Abdellah deputy surgeon general, making her the first nurse and the first woman to hold the position. She served under the U.S. surgeon general for eight years and retired from the military in 1989. As deputy surgeon general, it was Abdellah's responsibility to educate Americans about public-health issues, and she worked diligently in the areas of AIDS, hospice care, smoking, alcohol and drug addiction, the mentally handicapped, and violence.
In her government position, Abdellah also continued her efforts to improve the health and safety of America's elderly. She prepared and distributed a series of leaflets designed to inform people about Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, the safe use of medicines, influenza, high blood pressure, and other threats to elderly health. Under her guidance, the PHS also worked with physicians to make them aware of the latest research on health issues regarding older patients. For instance, physicians were warned that ordinary drug dosages may not be appropriate for elderly patients.
As a consultant and educator, Abdellah shared her nursing theories with caregivers around the world. She led seminars in France, Portugal, Israel, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, and the former Soviet Union. She also served as a research consultant to the World Health Organization. From her global perspective, Abdellah learned to appreciate nontraditional and complementary medical treatments and developed the belief such non-Western treatments deserved scientific research.
Abdellah has written many articles in professional journals as well as several books, including Effect of Nurse Staffing on Satisfactions with Nursing Care (1959), Patient-centered Approaches to Nursing (1960), Better Patient Care through Nursing Research (1965; revised 1986), and Intensive Care, Concepts and Practices for Clinical Nurse Specialists (1969). She is the recipient of over 70 awards and honorary degrees and is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. Abdellah was named to the Nursing Hall of Fame at Columbia University in 1999.
In 2000 Abdellah was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York. During her Hall of Fame induction speech, Abdellah said, "We cannot wait for the world to change.… Those of us with intelligence, purpose, and vision must take the lead and change the world. Let us move forward together! … I promise never to rest until my work has been completed!"
Advance for Nurses, November 20, 2000.
American Psychologist, January, 1984.
Image, Fall 1998.
Uniformed Services University Quarterly, May 2000.
National Womens's Hall of Fame,http://www.greatwomen.org/ (February 4, 2004).