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Lydia Bartholow, B.S. ’10, M.N. ’12, D.N.P. ’16, PMHNP, CARN-NP, has committed her entire professional career to providing health care for vulnerable and marginalized populations.

In recognition of Bartholow’s dedication and service, the OHSU College of Nursing named her the 2022 Distinguished Alumna of the Year.

Dr. Lydia Bartholow
Lydia Bartholow

As the associate medical director of Portland’s Central City Concern Substance Use services, Bartholow is dedicated to delivering health services to people experiencing houselessness, substance use disorders, toxic stress and oppression. She is also devoted to education, and teaches as an assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco, as well as a consultant and workshop leader for behavioral health organizations.

A major focus of Bartholow’s educational mission has been to help students and other health care providers consider the impact of trauma on their patients and what those patients experience when they enter a health care setting. She acknowledges that marginalized populations often avoid health care for fear of being stigmatized.

“If you’re vulnerable, if you have substance use disorders, if you’re houseless, you tend to not be treated well,” she said. “So, you’re not going to come back. One small thing we can do is work on our own responses to people who are using substances. We can educate ourselves about stigma and treat people with substance use disorders better.”

“If you’re vulnerable, if you have substance use disorders, if you’re houseless, you tend to not be treated well. So, you’re not going to come back.”

Offering mental health care to these communities can often lead to burnout for medical providers. Bartholow describes her own coping strategies. She likens her work to a sort of spiritual journey, describing her approach as “vicarious resilience,” and she feels that while she is caring for her clients, she also benefits.

“Leaning into loving kindness sort of diverts the energy from going toward burnout to instead going toward commitment to serving a really vulnerable community of people,” she said.

Bartholow also has other tools in her emotional resiliency kit. She admits to having an “overt commitment to having fun at work.” Picture Bartholow and her teammates setting up bowling alleys in the hallways at work, boogying down at impromptu dance parties, and dressing for silly costume work days.

Looking back over her career, Bartholow says that studying at OHSU strengthened her interest in caring for underserved populations.

“It really gave me some good scaffolding to think about how to do this work,” she said

As an undergraduate student, she had planned to work toward a Master of Public Health in order to tackle health equity from a systems level. She changed her trajectory when one of her instructors, Cathy Ahern, PMHNP, suggested that Bartholow consider becoming a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

“I’ve always been so grateful for her encouragement,” Bartholow said.

“You can’t be of service if you’re not understanding what the needs are, directly from the people experiencing those needs. And nurses get to be at the forefront of this.”

Bartholow says that she is both honored and humbled to be named the School of Nursing Distinguished Alumna of the Year. She insists that “it’s not all me.” She says that she has been fortunate to work with a great team that is committed to trauma informed, patient centered care.

“I’m so lucky,” she said. “I get to work at a clinic where people are really treated as humans.”

While resisting the notion that her career and accomplishments might inspire others, Bartholow does hope to inspire health care providers to recognize one important takeaway — in order to serve vulnerable populations, providers need to listen.

“You can’t be of service if you’re not understanding what the needs are, directly from the people experiencing those needs,” she said. “And nurses get to be at the forefront of this because, in their training, nurses have always included a commitment to thinking about the experiences of people in their care. Nurses think, ‘What’s it like for this person to be here?’”

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