Fifteen Minutes with Clark Willoughby, BSN, RN, PCCN


Being named to the 2011 list of “100 Great Iowa Nurses” is a testament to Clark Willoughby’s dedication to his patients and his colleagues. The fact that Clark entered the nursing profession after age 50—a time when many people are settling into their careers or planning for retirement—speaks volumes about determination and character. Clark, a staff nurse in the Burn Treatment Center (BTC), is the hospital’s only nurse with a PCCN (Progressive Care Certified Nurse) credential. He has worked as a lab technician in the military; practiced as a chiropractor for 20 years in Independence, Iowa; and served as adjunct faculty at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo before embarking on a nursing career. “I was looking for a career change, and I’ve always been interested in health care,” he says. “I taught anatomy and physiology and some lab courses at Hawkeye Community College and became interested in the nursing program there. I took the core courses, got my associate’s degree in nursing, and then started in the Burn Treatment Center here. While I was here, I got my BSN through the UI.” Growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Clark has always been interested in health care and science. For him, nursing satisfies his scientific curiosity, and it is cognitively challenging as well as rewarding.< “I’ve never seen an ocean, I’m not into travel … for me, the most interesting thing is work and the kind of work I do. My children are grown, and I’m settled at home, so that allows me to focus on my work,” he says. “Burn treatment has become a passion for me. I read about it at home and try to learn as much about it as I can.”  

How long have you worked at UI Hospitals and Clinics?
I started here eight years ago. At first, my plan was to work in the BTC for at least one year. Then it was five years, and then it was until I’m 60, and now it’s to continue as long as I can.
How did you become interested in nursing?
I was attracted to the field because of the diverse job settings, work location opportunities, and the potential in nursing. I didn’t know until the very end of my training what I wanted to do, but my sister (Cathy Willoughby) worked in nursing and administration at UI Hospitals and Clinics for 30 years. She suggested I check things out at the Burn Unit.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Nursing is more hands-on than many other areas of health care. I feel more directly involved with patients. I also like to work on projects here on the unit—such as instructional exercises or PowerPoint presentations for nurses. Also, working with this group is inspirational. They’re active, interesting, and really involved in what they do. What impresses me about this unit is the knowledge everyone brings to their work. Not a shift passes when there aren’t 100 things that I could learn from my colleagues. The teamwork is outstanding. I think we have a kind of synergism up here.
What’s most challenging for you?
The long hours are tough on me—I’m almost 60—and on top of that I have the drive from Independence. But the things that might be challenging to some about working in burn treatment are what drew me to the field.
Many of your patients have very serious, painful, often disfiguring injuries. How does that affect you?
As a member of the team working with burn patients, you learn how to do your part. It’s a continuous learning process, however, and you always come away with more. This experience has certainly taught me how to push myself in a number of ways. I think you’ve got to have a lot of resilience to work with burn and trauma injuries. When you are dealing with a burn patient, the focus is on the wounds, but you’re also very aware of the tragic circumstances of the injury and the effects on the patients and families. At the same time, burn injuries are unique in many ways, and to me, all aspects of burn treatment are fascinating. I’m always learning.
As someone who came to nursing later in life, how does your life experience influence your work?
All the work I have done previously helps me in some way. One of the things I feel particularly comfortable with is communicating with patients—that’s something 23 years of chiropractic practice helped me develop.
What do you do in your time off?
I like biking and woodworking—we have an old Victorian house we’re always working on. Botany and prairie ecology have been longtime interests, so I’m still involved in that.
Do you have a garden?
I don’t have a garden—not yet. I do have an area I’ve carved out to be a prairie plot in the back yard.
What about family?
My wife, Pat, works at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. I have a son who’s 25 and in grad school in Minneapolis—he and his wife just had our first grandson, Logan, a few weeks ago. I also have a daughter who is 30 years old who works at Wells Fargo in Des Moines.
What would you tell others who are interested in changing careers or perhaps becoming a nurse, particularly later in their careers?
I think we all consider career alternatives. There comes a point when you need to just jump in and commit to the work and change. It’s always challenging and never works out exactly as planned, but in time, the change is almost always worth it. I don’t know of any professional field that offers more diversity in experiences, and employment and educational opportunities for both men and women, than nursing. The need will continue to grow for a long time.
You were included among the “100 Great Iowa Nurses” for 2011. What does this honor mean to you?
It was a surprise to receive the notice of nomination to “100 Great Iowa Nurses” in the mail. I am grateful to my nurse manager and all the staff on the Burn Unit for their support, and I feel honored to have been selected by the “100 Great Iowa Nurses” committee.
So you’ve been a nurse for eight years. Any thoughts of trying something new?
If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably try to go back to the clinical laboratory—I was particularly interested in bacteriology and parasitology. But nursing offers so much in the way of learning opportunities that I don’t feel the need change direction at this point.