Member Highlight: Alan “Tony” Amberg
Alan “Tony” Amberg developed an interest in psychiatry early on in life.
Amberg thinks it was a mixture of witnessing loved ones facing particular conditions and battling depression himself that sparked his interest in the topic: “You become interested in something because you want to solve a problem that you're working on yourself. And as you work towards solving that problem, you begin to realize you could really be helpful to a lot of other people in solving the problems they’re working on.”
He also had a passion for theater. Amberg spent 17 years working in some form or another of the performing arts; it wasn’t until producing a radio show for the LGBT community in the late 90’s that he became involved in healthcare. At that time, among the largest advertisers were drug companies working on HIV medications. While they weren’t interested in advertising on the show, they were looking to produce health-related materials for those populations. Amberg began producing audio-format continuing education materials for them and, “One thing led to another, and suddenly I had a career in healthcare.”
Professional organizations helped him grow
That career in healthcare ultimately led him down the road to becoming a nurse practitioner. Amberg credits professional organizations for playing a large part in his growth, declaring, “I have tremendous gratitude to ISAPN. I am one of the first full practice authority nurse practitioners in the state, and that happened because of ISAPN.”
Having accomplished quite an impressive amount in the seven years he’s been an NP, he describes it as having been a wild, wonderful ride. He’s served as President of the Illinois chapter of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association and has spoken at multiple National Conferences. He’s also been published, spoken regularly for ISAPN, and is excited to now have students of his own beginning to speak for ISAPN as well.
Paying it forward during the pandemic
At present, Amberg works at Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial. He recently led a “Psychological First-Aid” program aimed at helping staff members better manage the added stressors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the initial two months of lockdown, Amberg began researching how to help others during a time of disaster. Referencing several psych first aid programs, he identified a common theme: deep breathing and mindfulness. He recalls, “So, I began to do that with nurses. Then I paired that with yoga-inspired movement and before I knew it, that was my job; going from unit to unit throughout the hospital working with people, trying to help them feel comfortable.” During those two months, he worked with more than 1700 staff members.
Reflecting upon the story of Florence Nightingale (who successfully faced infections for which there were no cure during the Crimean War), Amberg finds it interesting that the timing of the pandemic lined up with the 200th anniversary of her birthday. Pointing to it as a sort of amazing juxtaposition, Amberg elaborates, “I thought about how nurses throughout history have faced medical problems for which there were no cures. It was really a sense of pride and something I could bring back to our nurses to remind them: This is who we are. When everyone else is afraid to be in the room, it’s the doctors and nurses who walk in.”
A story of resilience
Amberg explains that a number of different COVID-related issues pose a potential threat to mental wellness among nurses. There is, first and foremost, a fear for safety and the risk of potentially bringing home a disease to vulnerable loved ones. A widespread loss of jobs across numerous industries has catapulted countless nurses into the position of breadwinner. As a result, they may feel added pressures to work extended hours to offset a decline in household income. Additionally, hospitals themselves have incurred financial challenges, as they were barred from performing surgeries and procedures that often constitute the majority of their income – made worse by the rapidly declining number of people retaining access to health insurance.
The result? Amberg explains, “Nurses were being forced to do more with less as their institutions bled red ink. They were doing things they hadn't done before or hadn’t done in years and – magnificently, I might add – rose to the occasion.”
Though Amberg recognizes the damage Covid has had on healthcare institutions and their dedicated professionals, he feels it would be a great disservice to not also note the strength and courage of those same individuals. “It’s absolutely true there’s a lot of stress, and some people really are suffering,” he says. “But there’s also a story of resilience; a vast majority of those in nursing and other positions who have faced their fear and are rising to the occasion. Almost all of them told me they’d rather be on the front line than at home. They want to be here fighting.”
The mental health of nurses matters
Moving forward, Amberg says there’s no question that it would be good for everybody to make programs similar to what he implemented at Northwestern Memorial more common, and not limited only to times of emergency. “We have to create the environment where it's understood that taking care of the mental health of nurses matters, and then we have to create programs that go in that direction,” he explains.
Amberg fears that with the economy in shambles and the Affordable Care Act under attack, there may be terrible things on the horizon surrounding policy positions in healthcare, and institutions may be forced into making some very difficult choices.
“One of the reasons I’m glad ISAPN is so active is because when hard decisions have to be made, if nurses aren’t at the table, those decisions will be made without the input of nurses,” Amberg says. He continues, “That’s what makes this organization so special and why I continue to have a great love and interest in ISAPN: because it stands up for me–for what we do, our field, our patients–in a way nobody else does. I think it's probably the most forward-thinking of the nursing organizations in the state, in terms of really staking out the role of nurses and how we should be at the table helping to make decisions about what happens.
“Our organizations have a proud tradition of saying something, but it's only as good as all of the individuals who participate in that process. When nurses stand up, we do make a difference. And we can’t stop now.”