Joan Furey’s remarkable story — one that was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the Stony Brook University School of Nursing at its 50th Anniversary Gala — actually began 8,000 miles from the SBU campus, in Vietnam.
“The war was going on and there was a lot of news coverage,” said Furey, who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, earning a Bronze Star. “A lot of the guys I hung out with in high school were drafted or joined. I wanted to contribute something. I literally walked into the local recruiter’s office one day and said, ‘I want to go to Vietnam.’”
Furey got her wish. After completing basic training at Fort Sam Houston’s Medical Field Service School in Texas, she spent a year with the Army Nurse Corps in an evacuation hospital in the central highlands of Vietnam, supporting special forces in the infantry division.
“We were exposed to a lot of combat casualties, and we also took care of civilians that were injured during the fighting,” she said, describing her time there as “intense.”
“We worked 12-hour shifts six days a week and then we were on call,” she said. “A couple of times we ended up working 18 hours because we had so many casualties. It was overwhelming, emotionally and physically.”
After getting discharged, Furey had an opportunity to teach, but wasn’t sure which direction to go. However, the G.I. Bill and Stony Brook’s newly opened School of Nursing, not far from her Port Jefferson Station home, helped make her next decision.
“They had a special program for RN students, and we were able to get credit for prior work,” she said. “It was a great opportunity.”
Furey was one of the school’s early graduates, matriculating in 1972. Fifty years later, Furey was one of five alumni honored at the School of Nursing Gala. “There aren’t words that can express this tremendous honor,” said Furey. “When I got the email telling me I was selected, I was so touched by it. It’s a great honor to be recognized by the school that laid the foundation for the work I’ve done in my career.”
After graduating with a BSN, Furey took a position teaching at a community college in Florida. Realizing she really wanted to work with veterans, she took a position at the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), working with World War II veterans and an increasing number of young Vietnam veterans.
“They were coming in with more behavioral issues than we’d seen before, and their behavior was challenging to the staff,” said Furey. “I began working with people in the mental health field because I understood what they had been through.”
Working with colleagues across multiple VA medical centers, Furey developed a comprehensive program to educate healthcare providers in the system on how to treat war zone-related stress disorders. “I knew it was coming from frustration,” she said. “But they didn’t know about PTSD at the time. They were just beginning to discover it.”
Furey’s program educated people about why these veterans exhibited their behavior and how to treat them more effectively. She also noticed another disturbing trend: The care available to women was incredibly poor, and the programs were all directed at male veterans.
These women weren’t in combat. They didn’t shoot guns. They didn’t kill anybody. My exposure was to combat casualties and making life and death decisions. And we couldn’t just take cover if we came under fire because we had critically injured patients to care for. All these experiences take a different toll.
“We had women who served in World War II, and they would come in with their husbands and say, ‘Why can’t we get any treatment here?’ It was difficult for them to get even basic healthcare at the facility,” Furey said. “They’d come in and their reproductive health would be ‘deferred’ because the organization only treated men.”
Furey began to understand her own experience, realizing that her active career was her way of coping. Seeing that there was a dearth of options to help people with similar experience, she began working with mental health professionals to develop programs to treat women veterans.
“Up to that point, healthcare professionals weren’t asking the right questions,” said Furey. “These women weren’t in combat. They didn’t shoot guns. They didn’t kill anybody. My exposure was to combat casualties and making life and death decisions. And we couldn’t just take cover if we came under fire because we had critically injured patients to care for. All these experiences take a different toll.”
In 1992, she co-founded the first in-patient treatment programs for women veterans suffering from war zone-related PTSD.
“They finally told us, ‘OK, you can do it on Saturday afternoon, but it has to be voluntary. We’re not going to pay for it.’ So we got a couple of nurse practitioners and women’s doctors and got started.”
The program turned out to be much needed, and a huge success. The next challenge was to make it more available, and Furey served on a number of national interdisciplinary VA committees and committees at the federal level targeted at improving the diagnosis, assessment and treatment of PTSD in the veteran population to include war-related trauma and military sexual trauma.
From 1984 to 1994, Furey was a member of the Congressionally Mandated VA Special Committee on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder charged with assessing the VA’s capacity to assess, diagnose and treat PTSD. From 1996 to 2000, she served on the President’s Interagency Council on Women and on the Department of Health and Human Services Subcommittee on Women’s Health and the Environment.
That work led to her next position as the associate director of education at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Clinical and Educational Division at the VA Medical Center. The efforts of her team led to research in developing a war-time stressor scale for women. Her groundbreaking work led her to appear before members of the U.S. Congress on seven occasions.
“I never set out to do any of this,” said Furey. “I just went along and dealt with the situations before me. I was 22 when I was in Vietnam, and I was older than the 17- to 19-year-old kids I was treating. People don’t think about that. But I wanted to make it mean something. I wanted to try to turn it into some kind of positive thing that can help people in some way. Thankfully, I was able to do it. But I had to learn how. Stony Brook gave me the opportunity to think about things differently, and to think about myself differently. And to think about how I could have an impact.”
— Robert Emproto