Ruth Bindler ’01 PhD grew up in the Adirondacks of New York. In the 1960s, when she started college at Cornell, the typical paths for women were teaching and nursing. Since she enjoyed her science classes, nursing seemed a logical route. Turned out it was a great fit. After working for a time at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, she moved to Wisconsin with Julian Bindler, who later became her husband, and found both nursing work and graduate school.

Bindler not only went on to become a successful public health nurse, she authored several books on children’s health and medication, was a key member of several children’s health studies in the Pacific Northwest, and has had a full career at what was the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education (ICNE) and today is the WSU College of Nursing, where she most recently served as associate dean of graduate programs. Through teaching, nursing, writing, and taking part in studies, she has served as a force for improving children’s health.

Ruth Bindler ’01. Allison Benjamin
Ruth Bindler ’01. (Allison Benjamin)

In the interim she completed a doctorate in nutrition at WSU, raised children Dana ’05 and Ross ’09, and found time to enjoy Washington’s great outdoors. Just prior to retiring from her job at WSU this fall, she visited with Hannelore Sudermann to talk about the things she’s learned since college.

Find your fit: In Madison (while in graduate school) I became a public health nurse. About half our time was spent visiting people in their homes for things like follow up after surgery, or if they just had a baby, and half was in the schools. At the time, they didn’t hire their school nurses… I worked with new moms and parents with kids who were anemic and had to work with their diet. I just started loving pediatrics.

Parents always have questions: As a teaching assistant for a large child development class at the University of Wisconsin- Madison I did a research project that worked as a group discussion for parents. There just was such a need. So I created a group discussion.

Be the one they need: When we came here, you could just call places or go to the library and look up what was there. I wrote to the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education. That year the hospitals in Spokane decided they couldn’t take all the nursing students. And the faculty (at the center for nursing education) were acute care people. They didn’t want to do this community health thing. That’s why they wanted me. They needed somebody immediately.

I got very engaged very quickly in the community. I had to find all these outpatient services that could take one or two or three students. There were a lot of resources—places for pregnant adolescents who couldn’t live at home, clinics, daycare centers, places that really needed a focus on health.

Decide to stay: We were going to stay here (in Spokane, where Julian had a two-year obligation at Fairchild Air Force Base) for two years. We ended up staying for good. We were up cross-country skiing one winter’s day. The sky was blue, the trees covered with snow. We looked at each other and said why would we leave here?

You can’t not be affected by having children: I just loved being a mom. They never expected me to give up work and stay at home. Everybody was always very accepting in my family that I would work and my kids would go to daycare after school. But we were always there for things like cheerleading and hockey.

Let the bug bite you: I’ve always had this research bug in the back of my mind. In the late ’80s and early ’90s we saw a lot of kids were overweight. It hadn’t been identified as a national problem, but we could see it. The first thing we did was review a Bloomsday study that had collected data from kids and adults. [The 1991 survey conducted in connection with the well-known race was about cardiac risk factors in children, and it included family history of heart disease, smoking, blood pressure, diet, exercise and fitness levels, and stress. It was the first of a number of studies in which Bindler and her colleagues explored childhood obesity, habits, and health.]

Write about it: I taught with a woman named Linda Berner Howry. We got annoyed that there was never good information about pediatrics and drugs. So we wrote a proposal for a pediatric medications textbook. Then we did a parents’ guide for pediatric drugs, then a pediatric nursing book.

I’m not sure that in nursing education at that point writing textbooks was really valued. But you reach a lot more students by writing textbooks. Our books are now printed in other languages. People all over the world are influenced by the practice and theory of practice that we’ve written about. [Her book Child Health Nursing: Partnering with Children and Families was named a 2010 Book of the Year by the American Journal of Nursing.]

Childhood obesity is a serious problem: We started seeing that in the late ’80s. At that point in time most health care professionals were saying we can’t call kids obese. My observation was that they know if they’re overweight. Now you’ve got to tell the parents that they’re overweight and that they should do something about it. Now one out of four boys and one out of three girls born today will develop diabetes in their lifetimes. That is astounding. It used to be just one or two kids in a class. Now it can be half of a classroom that is overweight and can’t really function in PE. It’s a really different world.

Keep pushing for change: We paid the schools to get the vending machines out of the schools, and we’re teaching the cooks to cook from natural foods rather than just getting tater tots. And the community gardens I think are really just amazing.

It is possible to do what you dreamed of when you were young: I really always liked to write. When I was young, I thought I’d be a journalist and I thought I’d want to teach. Now, I have authored a number of pediatric textbooks. I became a writer, I also became a teacher. It feels like I’ve come full circle.