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DSU department chair retires after 30 years teaching nursing

Mary Anne Marsh bids farewell to Dickinson State University after teaching in its nursing department -- and serving as its chair -- for decades. Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press

A 30-year member the nursing department at Dickinson State University and a major proponent of the department's former exchange program with Russia is preparing to retire at the end of June.

Dr. Mary Anne Marsh recalls receiving a phone call unexpectedly sometime in the late 90's from a colleague at DSU.

"How would you like to go to Siberia?" he asked her.

It was a question that gave her pause—and marked the beginning of a fruitful and friendly educational exchange between North Dakota and the storied land of Krasnoyarsk, a city and region in Siberia home to more than 11 universities, centuries of history and one enormous hydroelectric dam.

"I grew up in the 1960's and part of our curriculum in grade school ... was 'how do you live in a fallout shelter?' (and there was) that forever fear of what would happen if the Russians bombed us," Marsh said, recalling a conversation she'd had with a Russian faculty member during one of these exchanges between DSU's Department of Nursing and Krasnoyarsk. "They grew up with the fear that their dam would be bombed by the United States and their city would flood, so he said his dad told him 'you are going to be educated in the United States and then come back because if you become friends with another country ... friends don't bomb friends.'"

From forging relationships with universities after the fall of the Iron Curtain to inspiring students and faculty here at home to pursue careers in nursing and nursing education, Dr. Marsh's 30-year career at DSU's Department of Nursing—18 of which as its chair—has been marked with great accomplishment and bittersweet farewells. Many at the university were sad to see her go.

"She's just so knowledgeable about everything we need to do," Audrey Charchenko, a nursing faculty member, said at Marsh's going away party. "She's your go-to person, she makes things happen."

Charchenko is one of five nursing faculty members who are not only co-workers with Marsh, but also former students of hers. Charchenko said she could vividly recall being under Marsh's scrutiny during her time learning the ropes of nursing.

"She was one of my clinical instructors in the hospital and I can still remember her watching me assess lung sounds to make sure I was listening in the right areas," she said. "I have some very vivid memories of all the instructors, the stories they told, the things that stay with you."

Marsh hadn't always intended on pursuing the path of nursing. Once, she'd studied to be a teacher, but as she studied to teach health and science she found herself drawn more and more towards science and medicine.

"Interestingly enough, to teach health I had to take cadaver science at University of North Dakota and coming from a very health-focused family, the sciences—I was drawn to them so much more than I thought I would be going in," Marsh recalled. "As that grew, I thought 'how about becoming a nurse?'"

She graduated from UND in 1978, and would spend ten years working in the medical unit of Dickinson's St. Joseph's Hospital, where she eventually went into the intensive care ward and then to management, as well as community and home health. Around this time, she became connected to DSU.

"I had done some guest presentations in classes (at DSU) at the nursing program ... so when a vacancy became available they invited me to apply," Marsh said. "Wow, thirty years ago, here I was."

The exchange with Krasnoyarsk began on an overnight train crossing, where Marsh's colleague, then chair of DSU's agriculture department, was traveling as part of that department's own educational exchange with Russia.

"He was on an overnight train ride and a woman behind him heard him discussing Dickinson State University," Marsh said. "She tapped him on the shoulder and said ... (I'm a doctor) from Krasnoyarsk, Russia ... does your university happen to have a nursing program?"

Nursing is a bit different in Russia, Marsh said. In America, nurses have a greater level of responsibility.

"If something is happening with a patient (in the U.S.) the nurses will contact the doctors as needed," Marsh said. "In Russia the physicians are staffed 24/7 at the hospital just like the nurses are and they are on every unit overseeing the care. The level of responsibility for a nurse is much higher here in the United States."

However, nurses and doctors in Russia were paid substantially less than they were in the States at the time.

"In Russia the practice is that doctors would teach the upper level nursing practices. Doctors were so poorly paid that they had to diversify in order to have adequate income for their family," Marsh said "In order to provide for their families they'd have to teach in medical and nursing, they'd have to make medical supplies and equipment and sell those and so forth."

The daily routine for doctors in Russia was particularly arduous.

"The first pair of faculty that we had visit here from Russia that were teaching in the nursing program ... (one of them) was a surgeon," Marsh said. "To think, early morning she'd do her surgeries, see her patients, go and lead the program and teach and then in the evening she'd go and check on her patients again."

Marsh said that the two sides both saw benefit from coming over and learning how the other practices health. The Russians were impressed by the independence of American nurses, while Marsh saw the value of the Russian integration of alternative medicines into their healing repertoire.

"The thing that struck me most is how they integrate alternative medicine practices right into their healthcare system," Marsh said. "One of the most intriguing things was their use of leeches. For example some of the visits they had persons who were victims of accidents who had frostbite and they'd use leeches to draw the blood."

The relationship, however, ended on an unseemly note—DSU became embroiled in a host of scandals, not the least of which involved erroneous degrees being provided to certain international students. Marsh describes this period as "the dark times."

"When the degrees that were awarded to international students came into question, we were asked to stop all of our partnerships," Marsh said. "That came to a halt, I was asked to not be in contact at that time. I was hoping with our new administration, as things come around, to reach out again. We were talking about expanding the partnerships (to) include art and psychology."

Closer to home, Marsh said she will miss the people the most as she steps away from the school.

"(I'll miss) the people, both within the department and across campus. (I'll miss) the students, I'll miss teaching," Marsh said. "I will not miss reading papers."

Marsh said if she would have done anything differently, she'd have waited less time to pursue her master's and doctorate degrees. As for what she plans to do now with her newfound free time?

"I sincerely don't know. I am working through June 30th ... I'd like to spend more time with family, I recently became a grandma for the second time," Marsh said. "I would like to spend some time visiting them. Some things in our yard that have been neglected ... we returned to Dickinson in 2000 and there's a gnawing area in the backyard that needs attention. But those are short-lived. I think I will find myself with something."

Marsh said she's been "blessed" to have gone on three mission trips to Africa, for medical and nursing missions, and she's debating whether she may want to start that up again.

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