Gretchen Drinkard, PhD, RN, grew up a world away from the comforts many of us enjoy in the United States. Indeed, her formative years were spent in South and Central America, where her father, a United Nations marine biologist, helped governments of poor countries build their fishing industries with hopes of teaching residents how to feed themselves.
Dr. Drinkard’s early experiences in those countries set the stage for her career and the role she plays today: the Jack Taylor Senior Associate Dean for Academic Programs at Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish College.
“There was a lot of poverty and we were very privileged. It was basically the haves and have nots and it was very important to my mother, a social worker, that all of her children give back,” Dr. Drinkard says about her childhood.
Her mother’s encouragement coupled with the fact that Dr. Drinkard had undergone a number of surgeries before she was 15, made her decide at a young age that she wanted to become a nurse. “I guess it was just preordained to be,” she says.
Knowing her daughter’s interest in nursing, Dr. Drinkard’s mother enlisted her in the creation of the first Candy Striper program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The program provided a way for teenage girls to volunteer at a local pediatric hospital. Also, when Dr. Drinkard was in her early teens, she taught English in a small neighborhood school and served as an English/Spanish translator aboard the SS Hope, which was the world’s first peacetime hospital ship.
Pursuing her dream, Dr. Drinkard went on to study at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she received her BSN followed by her MSN from the University of Missouri-Columbia and her FNP and PhD from University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Dr. Drinkard loved nursing but wanted to take it further. “When I worked at the bedside and I engaged with individuals it was really gratifying but I wanted to extend that somehow. The work was so important to me, I thought if I could influence how others did that work, I could extend my influence,” Dr. Drinkard says.
“I feel like I carry a little piece of the faculty who invested time and energy in me in my practice, and now there are a number of nurses who carry me in their practice.”
As a nurse educator, Dr. Drinkard has more than 35 years of teaching experience, with faculty positions held at University of Texas-Arlington, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Maryville University, and Southwest Missouri State University. Dr. Drinkard, who has also served as Goldfarb’s interim dean, sees administration as a natural growth from her role as an educator. “I enjoy being involved in the development of the direction we will go and enacting the vision and mission of the college,” she says.
But now at age 66, Dr. Drinkard says she is preparing for the next chapter in life that will bring her full-circle back to nursing. She plans to retire from Goldfarb in July and become a volunteer at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
She says Siteman is close to her heart because that’s where she was successfully treated for lymphoma and had undergone extensive chemotherapy and radiation. “I was fortunate to have my husband and son with me for treatments. There were patients who had no one with them. Some had traveled from far away and would stay here for a week and go home on the weekends,” Dr. Drinkard says. “I want to be able to sit with people who want me there. I want to get back to one of my favorite parts of nursing: the emotional, spiritual, and psychosocial support people need when they are going through rough times.
“I will maintain a connection to my nursing self,” she says about her future. “Siteman is world-class medicine. I want to be a part of that.”