All in the mind

By Jane Palmer | 06/29/2011

Dreams trump age for this 19-year-old pediatric nurse practitioner.

Danielle McBurnett Age should not stop anyone from pursuing a dream, says Danielle McBurnett of Chandler, Arizona, USA. She began dreaming of becoming a nurse when she was about 10 years old. Just five years later, she enrolled in nursing school. She’s 19 now and has already completed both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in nursing. And, she is living her dream as a certified pediatric nurse practitioner.
 
While her achievement is extraordinary—she is likely the youngest nurse practitioner in the United States—it’s not something she calls attention to.
 
“The few times my age has come up, the responses have been very positive,” McBurnett says. “I have a special ability to communicate to my adolescent patients that anything is possible, and it is good to dream big.”
 
Being home-schooled by her parents, Ray and Lori McBurnett, made it possible for her to graduate early. “I am so grateful that my parents made the sacrifices they did to teach me at home,” she says. “This allowed me to condense my education and still find time to be a part of many different extracurricular activities.”
 
From nursing school to nursing career
McBurnett started taking classes at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona when she was 12, while finishing her high school work. She completed her associate’s degree and, at age 15, enrolled in the baccalaureate nursing program at Arizona State University (ASU). She graduated summa cum laude in May 2009, at age 17, and became the youngest person ever to receive a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from ASU’s College of Health Science & Innovation.
 
When she applied to the pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP) graduate program at ASU, faculty expressed concern about her age. Candidates for admission to the competitive program are required to interview with two faculty members. After talking with McBurnett, Leigh Small, PhD, RN, CPNP-PC, associate professor and coordinator of the PNP program, and her colleague were impressed.
 
“We were straightforward in the interview and asked her how she would handle patients’ parents who commented about her not having children,” Small says. “Danielle had immediate and thoughtful responses to each of the questions and showed great maturity and reasoning in her answers.
 
“Danielle continued to work with faculty members who had apprehension about her ability to serve in the role of a pediatric nurse practitioner. However, every person was impressed at the depth of her thinking, her ability to seamlessly synthesize and integrate information, and her kind and gentle approach with patients and parents in the clinical setting.”
 
McBurnett was assigned to work under a PNP who had high expectations for students, to be sure she could meet the rigorous clinical standards of the program.

Her ability to work with classmates who were several years older was notable. “She quickly emerged as a leader within her class,” Small says. “She was able to unite team members, enthusiastically encourage others, and be sensitive and conciliatory toward those who were facing challenges.”
 
Danielle McBurnett In December 2010, at age 18, she completed her Master of Science in Nursing. School officials contacted the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board to be sure there were no age restrictions for certification. After passing her pediatric nurse practitioner certification exam in January, she accepted a part-time position at Pueblo Pediatrics in Arizona, where she works alongside physicians who were her pediatricians as she was growing up.
 
Challenges and rewards
McBurnett is the first nurse in her family. But, several nurses were close friends of her family, and she was impressed by their compassion.
 
“When I was about 9 or 10, I decided that I really liked taking care of people, and I loved studying science,” she says. “Nursing seemed to be the perfect profession for me.”
 
Nursing school had its challenging moments. When clinicals started, she even questioned whether she had chosen the right profession. But when she started working in pediatrics, she realized that specialty was where she belonged.
 
Even during difficult situations, she found a way to learn.
 
“It was always challenging to show up on my assigned nursing unit early in the morning, only to encounter a nurse who was most unhappy to be spending his or her day with you,” she says. “Every time this happened, I would try to remember just how much valuable information they have collected over the years. Acknowledging this fact would always create a good learning environment, and by the end of the day, I would find that I learned many pearls of nursing wisdom from them.”
 
Her mentors, especially Leigh Small, have helped her through the rough spots of nursing school and the early months of her career.
 
“There is a huge learning curve,” McBurnett notes. “You can only learn so much in school. But it has been exciting being out of school and growing so much, thanks to my wonderful mentors.”
 
Her passion in nursing is taking care of children and their families. “I love being able to navigate through communication barriers, discover useful solutions and, best of all, see my little ones come back into the office happy and healthy again,” she says.
 
Working with underserved populations can be difficult at times. “It can be frustrating to not always solve the heart of problems, because valuable resources may not be available,” McBurnett says.
 
A range of interests
Although she earned her degrees at a young age, McBurnett didn’t spend all her time studying. A talented musician, she enjoys singing, playing the piano and writing music. She’s also active in her church and likes spending time with friends and family.
 
Pediatric nurse practitioner is just one of her titles. In March, she won the title of Miss Tucson Desert Rose and, in June, she competed in the Miss Arizona pageant. For her platform, she chose to raise awareness of children with asthma, a disease that has personally affected her life. She was one of 10 semifinalists in the Miss Arizona competition.
 
Contestants in pageants sponsored by the Miss America Organization participate in a service project to raise donations for the Children’s Miracle Network. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, she found it especially rewarding to volunteer for the organization, which supports children’s hospitals in the United States.
 
McBurnett was searching for scholarship opportunities when she entered the 2010 Arizona Colleen and Rose of Tralee Selection pageant. For the competition, she composed and performed a piano solo, “The Waves of Ireland,” that accompanied a slideshow about her experiences. She won the pageant and received both a scholarship and a trip to Ireland to represent Arizona in the Rose of Tralee International Festival.
 
A promising future
Her top priority at present is to gain more experience in nursing. In the future, she would like to be a spokeswoman for health care reform and may pursue a doctorate in nursing or a law degree.
 
Small sees McBurnett as an emerging nursing leader. “It is my belief that Danielle does well not because of, or in spite of, her age, but that she excels in all things because of her enthusiasm, determination, and the high goals and standards that she holds personally,” Small says.
 
“She is a wonderful example for others by demonstrating that through setting specific goals—followed by positive and focused persistence and being receptive to constructive comments along the way—a person can achieve amazing things.” 
 
Jane Palmer is assistant editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.


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