Friday, November 4, 2011

Nurse Practitioner cares for new patients

Experience working with students in Health Center influences farming abilities

By Annie Norling, Guest Writer

A career working on a hill with a sweeping view of Mount Rainier is a far cry from the closed walls of a medical office. However, former nurse practitioner Sherwin Ferguson decided she belonged with the goats.

Ferguson was born in Coventry, England, or as she called it, “Robin Hood land,” in 1957. Her family moved to the United States when she was eight years old.

She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s degree in nursing from Loyola University Chicago. Ferguson attended Pacific Lutheran University and graduated with a post-master’s family nurse practitioner degree in 1999.

Since graduation, she has practiced as a nurse practitioner at the PLU Health Center.

“I love the education part about being a nurse practitioner,” Ferguson said.

Compassion has been a major part of Ferguson’s work.

“She always handled them [patients] with compassion,” Clinic Coordinator of the Health Center Doreen Splinter said.

Audry Kahlstrom, a nurse practitioner at the Health Center, has worked with Ferguson for the past year.

“Sherwin is awesome with the PLU students,” Kahlstrom said.

Kahlstrom’s sentiments were echoed by Jadie Green, a medical assistant at the Health Center who worked with Ferguson for three years.

“She understands real life and does not put herself above the students,” Green said, “I think that comes from having kids of her own.”

After the director of the Health Center stepped down in 2010, Ferguson worked as the interim director until January of this year when she decided to devote her time to her farm in the foothills of Mount Rainier.

“I knew from the time I was little that outdoors is where I belong,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said she believes she got her love for animals from her mother who grew up on a farm in Ireland.

The impetus for the farm occurred when Ferguson and her family moved to a 127-acre property near Mount Rainier. She said she fell in love with the land and the pastoral beauty and wanted to protect it.

“I love the trees, I love the agriculture,” Ferguson said. “If I care about how animals are treated and land and trees, then I need to do it.”

Even though she had no farm experience, Ferguson’s farm began with a few chickens and a vegetable garden. It quickly grew to include 43 goats, 28 chickens, eight llamas and six sheep. The llamas protect both the goats, raised for dairy, and the sheep, raised for meat.

The compassion Ferguson shows in her nursing practice carries over to her farm. Each goat has a distinct and unique name. She speaks to her animals as though they are her children and each kid, or baby goat, is bottle-fed.

“Sherwin loves her goats. She loves her whole farm, but especially her goats,” Emily Bianconi, a fellow nurse practitioner at the Health Center, said.

Ferguson said her training as a nurse practitioner is very helpful when taking care of her animals. She can administer shots and uses the same assessment skills to check the health of the animals. For example, when she saw that one of her goats was not acting normally, she listened to its lungs and knew right away the goat had pneumonia. When the veterinarian checked the animal, he confirmed her diagnosis.

Ferguson’s farm consists of separate, temporary pens for young female goats, does and bucks. Each pen has at least one shed for shelter and protection. In January, the goats will be moved to a large barn on a different part of the property. The new barn will protect does and their kids from the winter cold and predators.

One of the sheds serves as a temporary milking parlor. Ferguson milks the does twice a day. Though she originally did hand milking, she now practices bucket milking using a conventional milking machine. The new barn will contain a milking parlor and another building will be built for making cheese. Ferguson’s farm will be a Grade A dairy Mountain Lodge Farm by February 2012. Currently she is developing her product.

“It is a big science experiment,” Ferguson said.

The cheese produced will not be organic. Though the goats are fed organic feed, Ferguson chooses to use antibiotics on sick animals. Her goal is to run the farm as naturally as possible, but she will not let an animal die. Ferguson hopes to expand her dairy to include sheep, so as to offer a wide variety of cheeses.

In the past few years, people have moved toward locally produced and organic food. According to the Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, there are nine certified organic farms in Pierce County and around 800 statewide as of 2009.

Ferguson is a member of Pierce County Tilth. Tilth was started in 1977 as a farmer’s cooperative.

Eventually, Ferguson hopes to use her farm as a way to educate people about the environment and sustainable living. Ferguson’s face lights up as she describes her “dream.” She will create an agricultural tourism destination where people will come stay in rustic cabins. Every morning a pack llama will deliver food from the farm.

Ferguson tries to imitate the natural environment of the animals on her farm. For example, she takes the goats on browse walks where they forage for shrubs, blackberries and other plants.

“This is what goats would be doing in their natural environment,” Ferguson said with a smile.

On these browse walks, the goats are free to roam, but they do not stray far from the herd. However, they have minds of their own when it is time to go back into the pens. As the eldest of nine children, Ferguson knows how difficult it is to wrangle a herd of kids. “My attitude is, I just need to listen to the goats,” Ferguson said.

In the future, Ferguson will raise pigs. Pigs will eat extra whey, a cheese byproduct. She wants to reduce waste produced by the farm while respecting the life of the animals and making good use of what they produce.

Ferguson will continue to volunteer at the Health Center occasionally, while she continues to expand the farm.

“Sherwin is a very passionate person,” Splinter said.