“My first job in nursing involved taking care of kids, some dying, and their parents,” says Marilyn Shirk ’73. “It was pretty heavy duty for a 23-year-old. Because I was taught the Roy model of nursing at the Mount, I knew nurses were part of a system. We needed support to give our best care.”
After a couple years working in inpatient adolescent psychiatry, Shirk pursued her masters in nursing in psychiatric/community mental health from UCLA. Her clinical experiences and her passion for wellness led her to propose a new position at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist, Nursing Liaison – which she held for over 33 years.
At Homecoming 2019, Shirk will receive the Sister Rebecca Doan Alum Award in honor of the legacy of Sister Rebecca Doan, CSJ, RN, PhD, founder of the Department of Nursing seventy years ago. Sister Callista Roy herself, Shirk’s first nursing instructor, nominated her for the award.
“Marilyn Shirk is a nurses’ nurse,” says Roy. “In her role at Cedars-Sinai, Shirk provided support to nursing staff and other caregivers on a variety of work-related matters.”
“My job was focused on mental health rather than illness,” Shirk says. “The most fulfilling part was being able to help nurses solve problems. They could express their feelings and explore options with support not judgment.”
Early on, Shirk experienced ethical challenges in practice. In her liaison role nurses consulted her about their moral uncertainty and distress. She was a member of Cedars-Sinai’s Bioethics Committee for over 30 years and promoted nurses’ ethical advocacy for their patients and themselves.
“I am proudest of my work in ethics,” she says. “Ethics is related to nurse self-care. When you asked to participate in a treatment plan which conflicts with your perceived ethical responsibilities, you experience distress. The ethical issues must be addressed to ensure both professional integrity and personal well-being.”
She also served on the ethics committee of California Nurses Association in the 1980s and gave input on the last two revisions of the ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses (2001, 2015). In 1994, she worked with local nurse leaders in ethics to start a collaborative nursing ethics conference, called Ethics of Caring, which has grown into the annual National Nursing Ethics Conference.
Her work was transformative at Cedars-Sinai. “By the time I left, self-care was being spoken by administration, saying ‘Of course, our staff has to take care of themselves,” she says. “They learned that patient outcomes are related to staff well-being.”
Retired since 2018, Shirk now volunteers at an organization in Santa Monica called The People Concern that aims to end homelessness. She also is mentoring a colleague at Stanford Health Care who is developing a new role there as a mental health consultant and educator for staff.
“Sister Callista’s model is something I’ve used my whole career,” she says. “It helped me learn to think as a professional nurse, and shaped who I wanted to be as a caregiver.”