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Ross inspires nursing students to care for older adults through hands-on experiences

Dr. Mary Ellen Trail Ross
Dr. Mary Ellen Trail Ross

Editor’s note: In celebration of Women's History Month (March 1 - March 31), UTHealth Houston is featuring outstanding members of our community.

Mary Ellen Trail Ross, DrPH, MSN, RN, said her passion for caring for older adults was likely spurred by the enjoyment she experienced visiting her grandmother, who lived to be 94.

She looked forward to those visits, and conversations with her elder relative. For more than three decades, Ross has been inspiring the same love in her students at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston.

“Older adults have a lot to share with the younger generation,” said Ross, associate professor of clinical nursing. “We can learn a lot from their wisdom and experience, and they contribute a lot to society. They care about younger people, are friendly and welcoming to students, and want to give back.”

Ross is passionate about the care of older adults.

“Older adults deserve good care by health care professionals who are knowledgeable and skilled, and who can assist them because they have given so much to society,” Ross said. “We need to do our best to support them as they cope with normal physiological changes of aging as well as chronic health issues.”

Ross equips students with knowledge and creates meaningful interactions between students and older adults. She has created partnerships with Houston-area continuing care retirement homes, assisted living facilities, adult day centers, and nursing homes to allow students to interview and conduct functional assessments on older adults, and to identify needs and concerns of this population. She has also forged a partnership with Fort Bend County Meals on Wheels, allowing students to visit homebound older adults in their homes to assist with assessments, education, and referrals to community resources.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has engaged students in virtual innovative learning experiences such as case studies, use of film, simulations, and interprofessional education.

“It’s amazing to watch students interact with older adults in the clinical field,” she said. “Often students find that the personalities of older adults are similar to theirs, and that they are still enjoying life. They get to know the person, and they start to see how rewarding caring for older adults is.”

The demand for nurses specializing in geriatric care is growing as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Ross said being a caring gerontological nurse extends past medical diagnoses. It is also about learning a person’s challenges and trying your best to assist them.

“Older adults are not concerned about getting older, necessarily. They are concerned with their functional ability, what their health is like, and their overall quality of life,” Ross said. “As people are living longer, they have to manage chronic illness, and learn new skills to manage. That could be a new medication, new medical equipment, or learning about community resources that can help them.”

Compassionate caregivers also take a holistic care approach, where they evaluate the patient as a whole rather than solely managing medical conditions.

“In a hospital setting, clinicians have a lot of control, but some older adults face significant challenges once they get home,” she said. “They may be on a fixed income and making tough financial decisions, or they may not have enough groceries for the month or sufficient heat. It’s so important that students learn what their lives may be like outside of the hospital.”

Ross said she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, but she did not envision how much joy she’d get from teaching nursing students.

“I was in fifth grade when I decided I wanted to be a nurse,” Ross said. “My mom was hospitalized for a surgical procedure. When I visited her in the hospital, I got to see nurses in action. I liked how caring and helpful her nurses were. Sure enough, I attended McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and graduated from the BSN program.”

While in college, Ross worked as a certified nursing assistant at St. Patrick Hospital. After graduation and becoming a registered nurse, she continued to work at the hospital on medical-surgical units and in the ICU.  

Ross said she loved being at the bedside, but she realized it was interacting with patients and helping them learn about their medical conditions and care that she loved most.

“At the bedside, I had so many patients and stayed so busy, that I didn’t feel like I had enough time to teach like I wanted to,” she said. “I was impressed by watching the diabetic educators work with patients. They had time to really teach, and I was inspired to pursue a masters degree in nursing education and administration with a clinical focus in gerontology.”

Ross first came to Cizik School of Nursing as a student. The campus wasn’t too far from her family in Lake Charles, and she was attracted to being in the Texas Medical Center.

“I entered the gerontology nursing program,” she said. “At the time, I thought we would be moving back to my hometown after graduation to work in the hospital setting, but that didn’t happen. I worked as a graduate teaching assistant in the skills lab and as a tutor, and before graduating Dean Starck offered me a teaching position. I truly found my niche. I love academia. I love teaching students.”

In 2001, Ross earned her doctorate degree from UTHealth School of Public Health with a focus in community health practice. She said it felt serendipitous. Over the 23 different courses she’s taught at Cizik School of Nursing, her favorite courses to teach are gerontology and community health. She is also a certified Gerontological Clinical Nurse Specialist. 

“This year marks 34 years that I’ve been teaching at UTHealth Houston,” she said. “Sometimes I look back and I can’t believe the time has flown by, but it’s something I really love and I’m passionate about. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career — educating nursing students and future nurses. To me, it’s significant, and I’m part of the difference they make in the world and the difference they make in the lives of their patients and families.”

Ross is a member of a number of organizations including the American Nurses Association, Texas Nurses Association, Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society for Nursing/Zeta Pi Chapter, National Black Nurses Association, Fort Bend County Black Nurses Association, Gerontological Society of America, and the Southern Nurses Research Society.

Her research interest and is on custodial grandparenting. She has published and presented on this topic, as well as on senior health, elder abuse, and on teaching strategies she has used in her courses.

Ross also credited her family, including her parents who valued education and set a strong example of love, determination, and hard work, and her husband and two children for their love and support, as well as her faith for carrying her through the journey.

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