2019 RNS Conference Recap by Excellence in Rheumatology Nursing Award Winner, Joni

Written by Joni Fontenont

People who know me know that I absolutely LOVE being a nurse, and it is something I am very passionate about. I cannot see myself doing anything else. I learned early on from my “work mom,” Elizabeth, to do the right thing all the time in everything that I do, and I keep that mantra with me daily to this day. I don’t do things for any special recognition or reward, I do things because if I were the patient, I’d want someone who genuinely cares to take care of me. By any means, I am not perfect, and I have made mistakes. I’m going to tell you a little about how I got into rheumatology, and hopefully, you will see how everything that happened up to this point has led me to believe this is where I am meant to be. This is honestly all the things I wanted to say at the President’s Dinner when I was so honored to be chosen to receive the Excellence in Rheumatology Nursing Award but I was so choked up and literally speechless that I was selected to receive this monumental award and when I was given the microphone I was too choked up to say anything at the time.

My Nursing Journey

I started out as an LPN and worked on a post-op unit for 4 years while going back for my RN. I finished my RN in May of 2011 and finished out 2011 on the post-op unit. I then transferred to ER and did that for 5 years, all at a hospital in Lafayette, LA. In August 2015, I moved to Baton Rouge, LA, and began working in the ER at Ochsner after getting married. After I had my twins in October 2016, I needed something with better hours. I wanted to stay within Ochsner, so I saw the position for Rheumatology Infusion and applied for it. I first thought, “I probably won’t qualify because I don’t know anything about rheumatology or infusion.”

I was told I am a nurse, so I qualify. I then explained that I fully engage myself in the area I am working in, and it’s important to me to know as much as I can about the area that I am working in. When I went for my shadow shift, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a patient with so much joint erosion on her hands. I realized right then and there that these diseases are VERY REAL. The position was offered to me, and I happily accepted it, I encountered patients of all ages, race, and gender. One of the main things I realized quickly was that a lot of my patients were faced with a stigma from people outside of the rheumatology world where the patient “looks fine” and “there really isn’t anything wrong with them.” It didn’t sit well with me when patients would tell me that because it’s not fair. If people had the education about these diseases, they would know that just because the patient looks beautiful doesn’t mean they are excellent. What is actually going on inside of their body is complete and utter chaos. It remains that way until they reach the proper caregiver, rheumatologist, who can adequately control and manage their symptoms. It sometimes takes years for patients to get to a rheumatologist because their symptoms get overlooked. It made me realize that this needs to change. We can change this. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s the little things that we can do that goes such a long way for our patients. We are sometimes the only voice, resource, and sense of security and understanding our patients have. They deserve to be cared for and have the right thing done for them. In combination with the desire, inspiration, and promise I made to myself and my patients, it made me realize I wanted to do more but didn’t know precisely how to go about it. I researched rheumatology resources and came upon the RNS. I became a member and was fortunate enough to be able to attend the conference in 2018.

Finding the Rheumatology Nurses Society

The 2018 RNS Conference was the first one I attended. Looking back now, joining the RNS and attending my first conference was what I was looking for and needing to be able to help me better understand the field of rheumatology, be a better resource to my patients, and help fulfill the promise I made to myself and my patients to raise awareness of rheumatologic conditions and educate co-workers, patients, their family, and the community. The doctors and PAs where I work, along with the patients, inspired me to want to be better and understand rheumatology better. At the conference, I realized very early on, I was in an environment where literally everyone is passionate about rheumatology and the patients who are affected by rheumatologic conditions. I was at the conference by myself, but it wasn’t long before I met some pretty incredible people. I met Gwen from Texas, who basically took me in with open arms. We would sit and talk in the evenings, and she didn’t mind me asking her question on top of question about some things that I didn’t understand or where I couldn’t connect the dots. She then introduced me to Nancy, also from Texas, and Toni, from Maryland. They had all known each other from previous conferences. I was so happy that they took me in as part of their little conference family.

After hearing about the chapters at the conference and that anyone could start a chapter, I realized that was it. That is what I could do to help learn more about rheumatic conditions, raise awareness about them, and provide education. I just knew it would be an avenue to make the thoughts and ideas become a reality. I reached out to the chapter chair after the conference and got the ball rolling with getting our chapter started. The RNS Baton Rouge Chapter was the first chapter in Louisiana. Although we are a small chapter, we have great plans and ideas for the future.

My 2019 Conference Experience

To say I was super excited for the 2019 RNS Conference is an absolute understatement. I was excited to meet up with the fabulous friends I met at last year’s conference, which I kept in contact with throughout the past year. It was like seeing family I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we picked up right where we left off! I met some new and amazing people, Sue Ann and Jennifer, who became part of my conference family. I was able to meet the people who we don’t see but make the RNS what it is. I was excited to officially meet the chapter chairs and the other chapter leaders I had been speaking to on the phone during our quarterly calls. When Ursula arrived, she texted me, and I told her where I was sitting. She came to meet me, and it was as if I had known her for years and years when in actuality, that was the very first time we had met in person.

Before the start of the conference, there was a chapter leader brunch where we got to sit down with Eileen and Katrina and discuss things face to face. It was so great to do that, and I am so appreciative of their time. After the brunch, it was registration time! I was excited about the topics of the sessions that were scheduled. Every single one I attended added value to my overall experience. I love hearing how people in other areas practice, and the questions that were asked were absolutely fabulous.

The topics were so in tune with what is going on nationwide. Medical marijuana issues. How nutrition plays a massive part in our overall health, more so in autoimmune diseases. The new medications on the horizon. There are so many new things on the horizon for the rheumatology world. So many good things to learn as healthcare providers and so many things that will benefit our patients.

During the exhibit hall breaks, I was able to meet with Katrina, who is on the chapter start-up committee and others who were interested in starting a chapter. I was able to answer questions and give tips on starting a chapter. I take things like this to heart, so it was so meaningful to me that other people sought out my advice. I’m certainly not used to things like that. I was so happy to help in any way that I could.

Special Moments

The week before the conference, I received an e-mail saying that I was nominated for the RNS Excellence in Rheumatology Nursing Award. I sat there and read the e-mail about 20 times with tears in my eyes, happy tears, of course, because it was so unexpected to be nominated for something of that magnitude. I was honored just to be chosen. I filled out the questions I was asked to fill out and sent it back. I kept this nomination to myself because I was sure there was someone out there who was more deserving of this award.

Fast-forward to the chapter leader brunch. It was so elegant yet informal. Eileen and Katrina wanted to hear our thoughts and hear us out genuinely. I was presented with the 2019 Chapter Trailblazer Award. I was so honored and touched. As I said before, I don’t do what I do for any reward or recognition. I do what’s in my heart and what patients deserve to have done for them. The conference gets going, and I’m enthralled with all of the events that were planned. I absolutely love the evening where they have the painting. Now, I am not a painter at all. I know I said multiple times while painting, “I’ll stick to nursing.” But I love that it’s something that I did and now I have 2 paintings from last year and this year. And I certainly look forward to what we are going to paint next year! The poster night was terrific as well! I loved seeing all the hard work people put into them. It indeed shows how invested they are in rheumatology.

The President’s Dinner never disappoints. Low and behold, when it came time for the award to be given, and my name went on the screen, I was in complete awe and genuinely shocked. When I got up on the stage, and Vicki was reading what I had written, it had me in tears. Happy tears. When I was handed the mic to say something, I wanted to say so much but didn’t know where to start and was genuinely speechless at the same time. I didn’t thank the anonymous person who nominated me. I didn’t thank my friends at the conference for answering all of my questions to help connect the dots. I didn’t acknowledge the RNS for being the fantastic and supporting organization that they are. But this is my thank you and I hope they know that.

When I got back to my room after the President’s Dinner, I took a pic of my award next to my RNS cardigan and sent it to the doctors and PAs that I work with saying that this is for them and our patients too. They are part of what inspires me to be the best person, nurse, resource, and human I can be.

The Annual RNS Conference never ends………. it’s only the beginning.

This is something that can be your beginning, your building block to bring to life the greatness you want to achieve, ideas you want to see come to light, and the difference you want to make but don’t know where to start. You have to utilize the conference to make friends you will never forget, and they become your family. Stay in touch with them. Share your thoughts with each other. Lock arms with this wonderful organization and all that it offers to enhance your knowledge to share with your co-workers, your patients, and their family members.

There are so many tools that the RNS provides, such as the Rheumatology Nurse Practice Publications, the RNS website, the RNS Dinner Series, and so much more. The little things go such a long way. Take the extra minutes to sit with your patients and just listen. It is an absolute privilege to work with the providers and staff, but most of all, to care for each and every patient that I encounter. Sometimes it starts with a simple phone call, but by the time they make it in to see you, it’s as if you have already met. I promise it makes a difference. You can make a difference. Let the RNS be the beginning of what knowledge you need to be the best you can be, be what your patients need and deserve, but most of all is the resource they need 🙂

The end of this year’s conference is the beginning of more to come for our chapter throughout the year and meeting up with everyone for the 2020 conference!