Dr. Teresa Chopoorian: McKnight’s Women of Distinction Award winner

Published in the Pawtucket Times on February 22, 2021

After reviewing hundreds of submitted entries, an independent panel, composed of two dozen judges, selected 19 women, including Dr. Teresa J. Chopoorian, to be inducted into the McKnight’s Women of Distinction Hall of Honor as part of the program’s third annual class. 

Dr. Chopoorian serves as Vice President and Administrator of the Central Falls, RI-based Mansion Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and is a former Professor of Nursing and Chairs the City of Pawtucket Cancer Control Task Force.     

According to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News the Hall of Honor recognizes executive-level professionals who have made a significant impact in the skilled nursing or senior living industries.  Of the sixty women who have been inducted into the Distinction Hall of Honor since its inception in 2019, Dr. Chopoorian is the only Rhode Islander to receive this prestigious recognition. 

Considered the hallmark of recognition for women leaders in the seniors’ care and living industries, McKnight’s Women of Distinction honors are given in three categories: Rising Stars, Veteran VIPs, and the Hall of Honor. A Lifetime Achievement Award winner will also be announced in March.  The annual awards program is administered jointly by McKnight’s Long-Term Care News and McKnight’s Senior Living. The winners will be recognized in editions of the McKnight’s Daily Update and McKnight’s Daily Briefing newsletters.

All of this year’s honorees, working in the health care industry, will be celebrated during a May 18th virtual awards event.  The ceremony will take place the evening followed by a special McKnight’s educational forum for all professionals in the long-term care and senior living industries the next morning. 

The Life and Times of Dr. Chopoorian

Dr. Chopoorian was hired as an Instructor at Boston University School of Nursing after completing her master’s degree at this university in 1964.  She was promoted to Assistant Professor and recognized as Teacher of the Year in 1968.  

She left Boston University in 1970 to accept a professorship at Boston College to co-direct a Macy Foundation graduate program with Harvard Medical School, a novel initiative to prepare Clinical Nurse Specialists. The program was among the first graduate nursing curriculum in the country and served as a critical role model for forthcoming nurse practitioner programs. 

In 1974, Dr. Chopoorian joined the faculty of Boston State College Department of Nursing and began doctoral studies at Boston University in 1978.  Upon completion of her doctorate in 1982, she accepted a professorship at Northeastern University School of Nursing where she continued to teach and participate in the development of nursing practice.

Coming Back Home to Long Term Care

Dr. Chopoorian joined the Mansion after a 22-year career as a nursing educator.  Her career parallels the transformation of nursing home care as it has undergone generational change.  As nursing homes evolved from custodial care to a case mix of higher morbidities and a greater need to deal with an increasing population of younger residents and residents with mental illnesses, Dr Chopoorian’s career paralleled this transformation in unique ways.

Starting as a teenager working in her family’s business, a 76-bed nursing home on the border of Central Falls and Pawtucket, mill towns emerging from the flight of the textile industry, she was inspired to become a nurse.  She then chose the rigor of enrolling at Classical High School Providence, which laid a strong foundation of scholarship that would serve her well.   More importantly, this earliest choice illustrated a characteristic of always taking on the greater challenge.  

In 1986, Dr. Chopoorian joined the Mansion staff at a time of family crisis.  Her father was retiring as administrator soon after the passing of her mother. At a crossroad of whether to continue the development of a fruitful academic career or apply her clinical knowledge and nursing skills to a family business, she made the critical choice of leading the family’s nursing facility while caring for her father. A daunting choice on every level, leaving the security of an academic career for a business whose nature and regulatory landscape were dramatically different than two decades earlier when she helped her father as a nursing aide.   

Dr. Chopoorian’s family crisis thrust her into the role of Administrator; she led the Mansion as a quality provider of skilled care and rehabilitation services, consistently a 4 and 5-star rated facility.  In 2010, she was recognized as the first recipient of the Nightingale Nurse of the Year Award by the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, as a nurse in the role of nursing home administrator.

Dr. Chopoorian also became active in the greater community and participated in boards such as the Pawtucket YMCA and Samaritans of Rhode Island. But closest to her heart, she has a lifelong commitment to cancer prevention, and has become one of the strongest local voices for cancer prevention in her community.  As chair of the Cancer Control Task Force supported by the City of Pawtucket Mayor’s office, she instituted programs such as a Poetry Slam that has young local school students writing poems competitively on the theme of smoking cessation or prevention.

A Rising Star in the Nursing Profession 

After graduation from the College of Nursing at the University of Rhode Island in 1962, she started as a Staff Nurse at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston. Again, rising to the greater challenge, she enrolled in the Nursing Master’s program at Boston University.  It launched a career that would keep her in the mainstream of nursing education and growth, up to the present day to bring her full cycle to administering a family business and the challenges of passing it on to a third generation.

Dr. Chopoorian shared her pioneering work on education for nursing practice through her teaching, publishing and consulting as these programs became established. She was recognized for her work by the Massachusetts Nurses Association in 1974 – “Recognition of a Nurse Influencing the Directions of Professional Nursing Practice”. 

Perhaps the most prestigious recognition was her selection as the 9th recipient of the International Council of Nursing (ICN) Fellowship in 1978, the first US candidate to be selected from among its 44 member countries.

Among Dr. Chopoorian’s publications, one of special note is her article, “Reconceptualizing the Environment”, which called attention to the social, cultural, political and economic environmental factors that impact the practice of nursing. Published in 1986, it is still heavily cited by scholars in the field and pertinent to the dialog of nursing practice today.

She was appointed Fellow in the National Academy of Practice, Nursing in 1987.

Meeting the Challenges of COVID-19

Dr. Chopoorian is now practicing what she has preached over the years, applying her knowledge and skills to the practical matters of administering a skilled nursing care facility, and doing it in a manner that has earned her the recognition of her peers as Nightingale Nurse of the Year.

Early in March 2020 as it became clear that nursing homes were ground zero in an epic battle; she consulted with her Medical and Nursing Director and decided to close admission of anyone into the facility who was not already in the facility until October of 2020, when community spread overcame the facility staff’s most resolute of defenses. The Mansion is one of only three facilities in Rhode Island with this record in the midst of what was designated as the state’s hot zone. The residents and staff who tested positive have since quickly passed quarantine with no deaths or illnesses. A major practice achievement as we now head into a time of protection with the Pfizer, Moderna, and other versions of the COVID-19 vaccine, and are hopefully home free.

Comic Robin Williams’ Death Puts Spotlight on Depression, Suicide

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 15, 2014

Last Monday evening, millions of Americans were shocked to hear that 63-year- old Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide. While it was well-known that he had a history of severe depression and years of alcohol and drug addiction, we were stunned by the unexpected tragic news. publically, Williams had it all, fame, fortune, loyal friends, and fans in every corner of the globe. But like millions of Americans he suffered in silence trying to slay his personal demons when he went into substance abuse treatment.

The sudden death of this Oscar-winning actor, recognized as America’s comic genius, squarely puts the spotlight on depression, a mental illness that commonly afflicts tens of millions of Americans.

DDepression Becomes a Public Conversation

Within the first 48 hours of Williams’ suicide The Samaritans of Rhode Island saw an increase in calls from people concerned about loved ones and friends, says Executive Director Denise Panichas, who expects to also see an increase in visits to her Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s website. Last year, its website received more than 50,000 visitors.

Panichas says, “William’s death reinforces the fact that suicide knows no boundaries, it being a relentless demon afflicting both rich or poor, and those having access to therapy or medical care and those not having it.

According to the Woonsocket resident, William’s suicide has raised the awareness of suicide prevention in a way that millions of dollars in public health announcements could never have done. “William’s movies as well as his dedication to community service resonate with multiple generations, says Panichas, stressing that his six plus decades had value “which will live on.”

Williams substance abuse problems also highlights the need for more awareness as to how addictions can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, states Panichas, who observes that throughout the country, in ever city and town, budgets for substance abuse treatment are being decimated, she adds.

“Promoting wellness and preventing addictions will always be a big challenge but we must do more if we want to see a decrease in suicides,” says Panichas.

Panichas expects the death of Williams, an internationally acclaimed movie star, will have an impact on fundraising for suicide prevention or addiction and depression prevention programs. She has seen an increase in donations from Rhode Islanders as well as from around the country. .

“One donor gave a donation in memory of “Mork”. The donations coming in may be small but every one counts toward keeping our programs available to the public,” says Panichas, noting that over the years public funding has “been drying up.” The Samaritans of RI is using more creative fundraising structures, like crowdfunding (www.crowdrise.com/samaritansri2014) and other social venture sites to create new revenue streams for her nonprofit, she adds.

An Illness That Can Affect Anyone

Lisa B. Shea, MD, Medical Director of Providence-based Butler Hospital, Providence, learned of William’s suicide by a CNN alert on her IPhone. To the board- certified psychiatrist who serves as a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Alpbert Medical School, “it was tragic but preventable.”

Shea, a practicing psychiatrist for 20 years, notes that people who have suicidal thoughts, like Williams, are struggling with mental health disorders. “Their thinking can get very dark and narrow and they believe they have no options,” she says, oftentimes feeling like a burden to others. “It does not matter who you are mental illness can strike any one regardless of their wealth and fame,” she says.

According to Shea, the public’s interest in William’s tragic death sheds light on the fact that people can get help and it begins with taking a positive first step. “People with suicidal thoughts, who feel “intensely tortured and can not see any way out of their situation, can benefit from supportive therapeutic relationships, medications, and getting support from family and friends who can push them into getting professional help,” she says.

Shea calls on Congress and Rhode Island state lawmakers to positively respond to the William’s suicide by providing increased funding to create access to treatment and prevention programs and to support mental health research.

Finally, Shea says that there are a number of tell-tale signs of a person expressing hopelessness who may be thinking of ending their life. They include statements made by someone that others are better off if he or she were not around; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; not taking care of yourself; and giving away personal items. When these occur, talk to the person telling them that you care about them and are concerned for their well-being.

Adds Melinda Kulish, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist/Clinical Neuropsychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “There are also times when depression is not easily recognizable. Some people who are depressed experience it most acutely when by themselves but can appear fine, even quite happy, when they are with other people.”

Kulish explains that, for various reasons, some people feel the need to make others happy. Cheering others up or making others laugh makes them also feel happy.

“But, if that person is suffering from depression, the happiness is fleeting – the laughter ends and they once again feel empty and sad. The cheering up of others is a fix that is OUTSIDE, not inside of them.

“And drugs and alcohol can make them feel better for a time. The high always ends, and when alone, they feel empty and even more depressed,” says Kulish. “There’s really good research to suggest that talking about traumatic and upsetting events leads to much healthier responses. The old idea, ‘I’m just not going to talk about it so it’ll go away’ doesn’t work.”

“It’s a myth that if you ask a person if they are suicidal you will put that idea in their heads,” says Shea.

Feeling Low, a Place to Call

When this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers once said in a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the desperate and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its website.

Executive Director Panichas, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2014, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 4,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Art Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go tohttp://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll-free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For mental health resources, go to http://www.butler.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.