UCI News

Body and soul

New dean of nursing school fascinated by intersection of medical and spiritual care

by Matt Coker, UCI | February 28, 2022
Body and soul
“I believe that nursing has the power to transform society,” says Mark Lazenby, an advanced practice nurse and philosopher who recently became dean of UCI’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing. Steve Zylius / UCI

Mark Lazenby, an advanced practice nurse and the new dean of UCI’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, recalls his time in an oncology clinic back East caring for a man with prostate cancer. The oncologist needed the patient to undergo a colonoscopy so it could be determined whether the cancer was contained in the prostate, but the fellow struggled with crippling anxiety and feared being sedated.

In “Beauty,” the fourth chapter of Lazenby’s 2017 book Caring Matters Most: The Ethical Significance of Nursing, the author explains his personal transformation in caring for an individual some may have considered “a problem patient.” Lazenby writes:

I knew enough to start imagining my patient as other than a “prostate cancer patient” in my clinic room. I started imagining him as having lived a life before my life with him. I also started imagining him as having a life with a future, a future of getting a colonoscopy and of getting the right treatment for the prostate tumor. And I imagined a future for him in which he did not come again to the cancer clinic, a future in which he did not need to come because the cancer had been controlled. I hoped for a future for him free from disease. 

This is our choice as nurses – the choice to view our patients as having lives outside the context in which we see them. It is an ethical choice. It is the choice to view our patients as if disease and disorder do not rule their lives, even though they may be afflicted with disease and beset by disorder. It is the choice of viewing our patients as having beautiful lives. Life, after all, is beautiful.

Fortunately, there was a beautiful ending to the patient’s story, as you learn if you read Caring Matters Most, which kicked off Lazenby’s trilogy that also includes Toward a Better World: The Social Significance of Nursing (2020). The third book does not yet have a main title but will come out next year with the subtitle The Spiritual Significance of Nursing.

Lazenby says he grew up as “a spiritual kid” in Blythe, California, before becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion at Boston University.

He was an assistant professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts college in Philadelphia in 2004 when he learned that his mother was in a Palm Springs hospital. Lazenby knew she had stage 4 colon cancer but had no idea she was so ill that she needed treatment in an intensive care unit 120 miles away from her home in Blythe. The young philosopher flew in to join his two brothers and sister in a hospital consultation room, where a nurse “patiently” and “kindly” helped them realize that there was no coming back for their mother. The siblings moved her to a nearby hospice, where she died two days later.

“That nurse profoundly transformed my life,” Lazenby said after being introduced recently as the new dean of the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing. “She cared about my mother, and she cared about my family. After that encounter, I changed my life’s course, enrolled at Yale and became an advanced practice cancer nurse.”

He continued teaching philosophy while pursuing a nursing degree and credentials, exploring “that very intersection of what are the big questions of life that nursing has an answer to, including providing spiritual care for people.” He earned an M.S. in nursing in 2009.

A Fulbright scholarship took Lazenby to the King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman, Jordan, where he explored how Arabs – both Christians and Muslims – approach the end of life. Being a nurse and an outsider raised in a different religion “provided the space” to conduct objective research, he believes. Lazenby has also conducted empirical research on the emotional and spiritual well-being of cancer patients in the U.S.

He served as a faculty member at Yale University from 2010 to 2019 – with joint appointments at Yale Cancer Center, Yale Divinity School, and the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. From 2019 to 2022, Lazenby was a professor of nursing and philosophy and the nursing school’s associate dean for faculty and student affairs at the University of Connecticut.

Now he’s excited to bring to UCI’s nursing school the education and experiences he gained as a nurse practitioner as well as an academic. With Yale’s nursing school being nearly 100 years old and the University of Connecticut’s being 80, “it’s a very different experience being at a school that’s 5 years old,” Lazenby says. “One of my basic goals is to help the school in the journey to maturation. Along with that, I aim to put into place a robust research infrastructure to continue the School of Nursing’s trajectory to becoming a powerhouse research nursing school.”

He also wants to help focus research and clinical work on pandemic readiness, health equity and climate change, saying: “I believe that nursing has the power to transform society.”

If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/sue-and-bill-gross-school-of-nursing.