uci school of nursing clinical professor susan tiso checks a patient's heartWhen Susan Tiso, DNP retires from her role as clinical professor at the UCI Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, she will be leaving big shoes to fill.

Especially in the Doctor of Nursing Practice Post Masters and Family Nurse Practitioner tracks, a program she helped build more than 25 years ago.

Five years into her career in 1980, Tiso grew tired of Boston’s mosquitoes in the summer and snow in the winter. She and a nurse girlfriend packed their bags and headed west.

On Jan. 5, 1981, Tiso started her job as a trauma intensive care unit nurse at UC San Diego, where she received an education in pathology and physiology “in real time”.

“There were no helmet laws back then. We had a lot of motorcycle accident victims come in with massive head injuries and traumatic amputations,” she remembers.

Exactly 40 years later — Jan. 5, 2021 — she’ll wake up to her first day of retirement. She doesn’t plan to set an alarm, either.

Wanting to do more for patients

After a few years in San Diego, Tiso moved to Long Beach. Seeking a different challenge and slower pace, she worked as a nurse at Long Beach City College. Thanks to some of the trade classes on campus, “I was called to attend a lot of injuries.”

It was while working at health fairs and interacting with the diverse community that Tiso realized she wanted to be able to do more with disease diagnosis and management.

“That’s when I started to feel like I needed to do more as an RN,” she says. “A lot of our faculty and students would come in with high blood pressure and various health problems, but I was limited in what I could do for them as a registered nurse.”

She enrolled in the UCLA family nurse practitioner program and graduated in 1991.

uci school of nursing clinical professor susan tiso working at the covid-19 test sites

Since spring, Susan Tiso has been working at the COVID-19 test sites.

Before Tiso came to UCI, she was a nurse practitioner at a multispecialty medical group in Long Beach and an adjunct professor at California State University, Long Beach; teaching pediatrics to family nurse practitioner students.

A colleague and ‘work wife’

That’s where she met Clinical Professor Susie Phillips, DNP, who today is not only a colleague, but a dear friend and a “work wife.”

“We finish each other’s sentences as this point,” she says. They’ve worked side by side for more than 20 years.

The feeling is mutual. Phillips says Tiso has always been there to nurture and mentor her, first as a student, then later as a new faculty member, and today as a close friend.

“It was my honor to be her student. She was an amazing, compassionate, dedicated educator who nurtured my learning and growth for many years,” she says.

“Susan is my rock and I wouldn’t have been at UCI as long as I have without her.”

Building a family nurse practitioner program

When UCI created the family nurse practitioner post-master’s certificate program, the program’s administrator Ellen Lewis and first director, Mary Knudtson, DNSc, hired Tiso to help build it and be an instructor.

Tiso, Lewis and Knudtson and another colleague, Karna Bramble, PhD, quickly got to work.

“We developed the nurse practitioner curriculum in a kitchen in one afternoon. Then we started enrolling students,” she remembers, recalling how much more quickly things could be done back then.

While teaching the program’s students, Tiso worked three days a week at UCI Medical Center, a combination she finds extremely fulfilling.

“I’ve always like education and teaching students. I get really excited when I’m teaching. I really like practice too. Having both those pieces has been really good.”

A career of achievement and compassion

When she was younger, Tiso was fascinated with science and biology. She thought she’d be a psychologist.

nurse susan tiso tests 3d printed face shield

Susan Tiso was the ‘human factor’ who tested the Beall Center for Innovation’s face shields for healthcare workers early in the pandemic.

“But my guidance counselors steered me to nursing as a field.”

The guidance counselors’ instincts were right.

“Once I got into nursing, I really liked it. The interpersonal connection, the holistic approach.”

Tiso has accomplished a lot in her more than 45-year career. She’s proud of achieving full professorship in 2011. Earning her doctoral degree at The George Washington University was another high point.

“The profession was moving toward having the DNP degree as the entry level requirement for new nurse practitioners, and it was important for me to earn that degree to contnue doing what I loved,” she says, beaming. “It was a lot of work, but in the end, it was a big deal.”

She’s also proud of being a fellow in the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). Fellows are selected because of their outstanding contributions to clinical practice, research, education or policy.

Learning from her former students

“Those are all good things, but I found most of my satisfaction with my students and patient care.”

Tiso also loves nurturing and growing staff and faculty, especially former students like nurse practitioners Candice Whealon, Tiffany Nielsen and Sarah Campbell.

“It’s wonderful to work with people you taught,” Tiso says. “I had so much joy having them as students and working beside them I’m still teaching them. But it goes both ways; I learn from them too.”

The feeling is mutual for Whealon, who says Tiso has been a dedicated and inspiring source of support as a student and now as a new member of the nursing school’s faculty.

“Her dedication to her students’ success is only matched by her care for their emotional and physical well-being. I will be forever grateful for her support throughout my own education and career,” Whealon says.

Assistant Dean Dorothy Tu adds, “Dr. Tiso not only mentors students, she is a role model to staff.  She brings forth excellence in everything she does, and delivers it with kindness and a gentle smile. She just has a special way about her. You want to be on her team.” 

Post-retirement plans

One of Tiso’s goals for retirement is to get more fresh air and exercise by walking around Long Beach’s tree-lined streets or the beach’s bike path.

“I have an Apple watch, and it has three rings: one for standing, one for moving and another for exercise. I get my move and stand goal, but I don’t get my exercise goal.”

She also loves to cook  — especially soup — and she looks forward to having more time for it.

When the pandemic is over, she is eager to resume her travels. In fact, she and her husband had tickets to Hawaii for Jan. 6.

“So, that’s not going to happen. It is what it is. You can’t get yourself crazy over this stuff.”

She also wants to spend more time with her daughter, who lives in Santa Monica, her grandchildren who are 1, 3 and 8, as well as her 91-year-old mother and older sister in New Hampshire, and her brother who lives locally.

Tiso will also temporarily work part-time at UCI Health’s COVID-19 test sites to support the remaining staff during the current surge.

Founding Dean Adey Nyamathi adds that “Susan has been one of the foundational pillars of our school and it will be hard to see her retire. However, I am grateful that Susan is interested in coming back for a percentage of time on recall. She has been an exceptional role model and leader in our school.”

Wisdom for modern nurses

After such a long career, Tiso reflects on how things were and how they are now.

She recalls a time when she and her team were able to set up a mobile flu clinic on the street in Santa Ana, gathering patient consents and vaccinating them on the spot.

“You can’t do that anymore. Things change for a reason, but it’s more complicated now.”

Tiso also says the demands on our time and the lines between work and home have blurred.

“Everything is electronic and work from home. If you don’t have boundaries, you could work and answer emails 24/7.”

Shutting off the computer and spending time with loved ones is critical for our mental health, she says.  The work of our nurses and nursing faculty is important and serious, but you have to step away and find balance.

“The next generation will have to learn how to make this work.”

Her message for nurses coming up behind her is important, especially in the current climate: Disconnect at the end of the day. Get outside. Have a social life. Nurture your sense of humor. Find what soothes you.

“Respect your own need for self-care. If you lose that, you lose your compassion and then you’re not good for anybody.”