Indiana State University Newsroom

Pioneer in a pantsuit: Reflections of a groundbreaking nurse

March 25, 2014

Sara Wheeler's nursing career began in the fifth grade when she cared for a cat that lived in her family's garage in Peoria, Ill.

"The cat was so sick that I had to go out every morning and every evening, and I would basically hand-feed the cat. I'd dip my fingers in milk and he would lick it off my fingers, and then I'd break up little kibble or chicken and hand-feed him," she said. "I'll never forget the day he walked out of the garage. I felt like I made a difference, and I liked that feeling. It was then I knew I wanted to be a nurse."

Wheeler's dad discovered Indiana State University had started a nursing program. He insisted she receive a college education in becoming a nurse, which was a key for her development professionally, as well as personally.

"I think that going to college is such a great time in your life," she said. "You're away from your parents but still in a protected environment. Even if you have figured out who you are and what you want to do, college offers you experiences to refine who you are, who you want to be, and how you want to do it (your career). College not only helps you achieve your goals, it sets you on the path to your future. Once you graduate, you have the opportunity to shape your future, based on what you learned, what you experienced, and who you met. And, a BS degree in nursing is a springboard for graduate nursing education! The nursing world opens up to you in a wide variety of directions."

The nursing program at Indiana State was only three years old when Wheeler came to Terre Haute in 1966. Wheeler said in her junior year, the nursing dean, Dorothy McMullen, called her into her office and told her she should stop "skating by on C's" or rethink her desire to become a nurse.

"She ran a really tight ship and wanted the graduates from her program to be top-notch," Wheeler said. "The very first day of orientation, there were probably 50 of us in the room, and she said ‘Look to the right of you and look to the left of you.... They're not going to be here when you graduate.' She was pretty much on target, because I think 16 [graduated] in our particular class. I think I was sitting on the end and that's what saved me!"

When Wheeler graduated from Indiana State, she worked with several of her classmates at Union Hospital.

"We were ‘pioneers' in the field. There were not many baccalaureate-prepared nurses at that time, and [we] challenged the system by trying to implement what had been learned in nursing school. We held patient-care conferences, sat on patients' beds when we talked with them, and at times, shared our tears. We also were the first nurses to wear pantsuits at Union Hospital and stopped wearing our caps."

She said the rigor of Indiana State's nursing program left her feeling "confident and competent" when she graduated. "We got such a great education that really set us forward on a career path.... [Indiana State] really inspired that lifelong learning," she said, "that quest to keep your practice on the cutting edge."

During her 43-year career, Wheeler worked as a staff nurse, clinical nurse specialist, nurse educator, dean of nursing and national dean of nursing. She has also conducted research about how to understand and respond to the needs of women and adolescents who have experienced the loss of a child through miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. She co-founded Resolve through Sharing, a national program that helps women and their families cope with loss.

She said founding this program was one of the proudest moments of her career. "[It is a] wonderful program that was started by people who care for women and their families when a baby dies," she said. "That is one heck of a legacy."

The other accomplishment Wheeler is proud of is the nine years she served as the dean of Lakeview College of Nursing. She said she used her experiences from Indiana State to provide guidance and instruction to her own students. "Going to college is more than just getting a theoretical education," she said. "It's also getting to meet a wide variety of people who are very different from you.... You learn there are a lot of similarities among people, and then there are some differences that you will learn to appreciate."

Wheeler recently stepped down from her position as the national dean of nursing where she oversaw 44 nursing programs nationwide. She said she will rely on the faith in God she has had since she was 12 years old to make her next career move.

"I have always prayed for my life to be used in the way that it should be. "When I look back on my life, I see how opportunities were placed in front of me that became the stepping stones to my journey.... Through prayer, I was able to make the best decisions for me," Wheeler said. "That continues to be my prayer."

In the meantime, she is focusing her time on writing a chapter on Adolescent Pregnancy Loss and a second edition of "When a Baby Dies: A Handbook for Healing and Helping," a book she authored with Resolve Through Sharing co-founder Rana Limbo.

Through her research on miscarriage and adolescent pregnancy loss, Wheeler said she learned more about how women of all ages cope with an early pregnancy loss, what their needs might be and how health care providers can better help them.

While some women grieve the loss of a child through miscarriage or the termination of a pregnancy just as they would a loss via stillbirth or infant death, "different women feel differently," she said.

"We need to become better listeners as health care professionals," she said. "And one of the hard things now with all of this technology is that people have their heads down and they may or may not be listening."

Through all of her different endeavors in the nursing field, Wheeler credits Indiana State for giving her a firm foundation to build her career upon.

"ISU is creating futures for its students," she said. "It's doing that now, but it also did that back in the '60s for those of us in the nursing program."

Her husband, Gary Lee Wheeler is an ISU graduate, and they have many friendships that started when they were in college and have been sustained for almost 50 years. Her daughter, Lori Rich Kiefer, MD, is also an Indiana State alumna.

"Now if our son gets accepted into the College of Nursing's graduate program, we will be an ISU family!" she said.

Wheeler was a 2013 recipient of the Indiana State University Distinguished Alumni Award and plans to join other alumni in helping the university mark the 50th anniversary of the nursing a program during a daylong series of programs on April 11.

"ISU helps you create your future," Wheeler said. "And then you have to grab hold and make it happen."

Photo: - Indiana State University nursing graduate Sarah Rich Wheeler holds a book she co-authored about the loss of a child through stillbirth, miscarriage or infant death. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Sarah Rich Wheeler has become nationally known for her work on bereavement following the loss of a child but has never strayed from her rural Indiana roots. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Sara Rich Wheeler, a 1970 graduate of Indiana State University's nursing program, poses with her husband, Gary Lee Wheeler, also an Indiana State graduate, at their home in Covington. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Writer: Emily Sturgess, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or