becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner

Persevering to Pursue a Lifelong Passion for Nursing

PMHNP Student, Mother, and Frontline Worker Holly DeVylder Prepares to Graduate Despite Two Years of Unimaginable Personal Challenges

No matter how prepared you are to continue your education, life often has other plans. Holly DeVylder, Goodwin University PMHNP student, knows this all too well.

Holly was working full-time as a clinical research nurse for Pfizer and had just started Goodwin University’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program when doctors told her that her daughter, Arabella (Belle for short), was facing an uphill orthopedic battle at just six months old.

No parent is ever prepared to find out that their child has a potentially life-altering health condition. “I would have never attempted to sign up for this program if I had known what was going to happen,” Holly said, “but I kept pushing through.”

It’s been two years since Holly and her family’s life suddenly became more complicated. In January 2021, she found herself with one medically complex child, another toddler at home, and a full-time job working for Pfizer during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. To top things off, she’d just begun a graduate degree program at Goodwin University. Today, Holly is a few months away from graduating with her PMHNP degree — to say it’s been a difficult two years would be an understatement.

Holly sat down with Goodwin University to share her story as she embarks on the next phase of her journey as a parent and a frontline healthcare provider.

Choosing PMHNP

Holly’s interest in mental health goes back to her childhood. “My mom had a massive brain aneurysm and a stroke when I was four. Within her rehabilitation, she became addicted to the typical cocktail of Percocet, Xanax, Vicodin, and alcohol. She became yet another statistic in the opioid epidemic the world now faces. I first became interested in psych because of going through all of that with my mom,” says Holly.

Holly started her career by earning her degree as a licensed practical nurse at Lincoln Tech. She continued on to the Goodwin University Bridge program, earning her associate in Nursing in the spring of 2017. While going through the Bridge program, Holly became a nurse for the State of Connecticut in juvenile detention. “Mental health is a major component of juvenile detention. I felt I could make a difference in kids’ lives,” says Holly.

Holly loved what she was doing, but she was contracted with the state, and when her contract ended, the state didn’t renew it. Her passion for mental health persisted while she took on a role in clinical research and, later, global study management for Pfizer. Understanding the pharmaceutical side of healthcare interested Holly from a young age, stemming from her mother’s experiences.

While working for Pfizer, Holly received her BSN from Goodwin University in 2020. By the middle of that same year, Holly and her fiancé had baby Belle, along with her toddler, Seraphina. Despite being a busy working parent, she wanted to keep learning and working toward an advanced degree. “We felt that we could show our girls a lot by continuing our education.”

While beginning her own program, Holly’s fiancé, Steve, worked to earn his MBA at Central Connecticut State University. “He is my best friend and the best dad — without him and the help from Goodwin, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

“Everything Happens for a Reason.”

Holly first learned about Goodwin’s FNP program and was set to become a Family Nurse Practitioner when she missed the deadline by one day. “I was devastated, but a month later, I called Goodwin to ask about the next cohort, and they told me about the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program.” Holly applied and was accepted into the PMHNP program in January 2021. She was excited to continue her career in nursing, pharmaceutical research, and mental healthcare when she received the news about her daughter.

“Being a nurse makes this whole experience a little scarier.”

Belle was just six months old when Holly took her in for a routine check-up with her pediatrician. “The pediatrician did a range of motion check, and we all heard a loud thud, and Belle started screaming,” says Holly.

After imaging and visits to the orthopedic surgeon, Arabella was diagnosed with grossly dislocated bilateral hip dysplasia. “Up until that point, everything seemed fine. Unfortunately, it can be easily missed with babies. If we noticed an issue sooner, she might have been ok without surgery, but because we caught it after six months old, Belle has had to have surgery after surgery for the last two years.”

Belle, who is now two and a half years old, has been in a near full body cast or leg braces for most of her life to keep her hips in place after surgeries. Holly’s experiences as an RN helped her with cast care and keeping Belle’s wound sites clean, but her expertise also left her with more worries than most parents. “I think, in a way, it’s made it a little scarier, knowing other things might be going on.”

Unfortunately, Arabella isn’t done with surgeries yet. Despite multiple surgeries, procedures, and many complications, her hips are starting to come back out of the hip joints. “This chapter isn’t over for her or for us,” said Holly. Belle has one more surgery scheduled this year and an MRI of her brain and spine to make sure there aren’t any underlying conditions that delayed Belle’s walking, even while casted and braced. “Her surgeon is concerned about her not wanting to walk. They’ve seen babies in full-body casts walking all over. The surgeon wants to be sure nothing else is going on in Belle’s brain before her next surgery.”

Belle took her first steps in just the last couple of months and started walking in the last four weeks.

“I don’t think I would have been able to get through this program if it was at a different school.”

Holly was one week into her new program when her daughter’s medical condition was diagnosed. Goodwin University offered Holly a medical leave of absence, but she wasn’t interested. “I would have had to wait a year to get back into the program, so I kept pushing through,” says Holly. “My fiancé has been a huge support. He’s an excellent dad.” Along with the tremendous support of their daycare, Holly and Steve have taken on the brunt of Belle’s care ¬– meaning even less time for everything that goes into pursuing an advanced degree.

“Goodwin has been tremendous. Every faculty member that I’ve interacted with has been so supportive. Anything I’ve needed, they’ve helped me through it all.”

Holly’s drive through all of this has stemmed from her experiences as a child and her time working with adolescents with the state of Connecticut. “Kids are hard. I didn’t realize it until I saw it from the psych side of things. I give a lot of respect to people working in pediatric psych. My preceptor has been amazing.”

Another Setback

In addition to Belle’s medical condition, Holly lost her best friend and mother figure, Adele, last summer. “Adele took me under her wing when I was 13 — I worked at a restaurant that she managed, and she became like a mother to me.”

Losing Adele in June of 2022 left her grieving for her best friend, which brought to the surface some latent issues of her own. “I think I’ve always suffered from depression, but losing her caused a paralyzing kind of sadness. Over the last summer, oddly enough, I experienced a lot of what I was seeing in patients.”

Even through the worst of it, Holly notes that the Goodwin community was there for her. “During those summer months, there were huge amounts of support from the Goodwin faculty, and I’m really thankful for that,” says Holly.

Balancing It All.

Time management has been the biggest challenge for Holly over the last two years. “Everything is out of your control when you have children anyway, but every time Belle has been in a cast, we couldn’t put her down. She just screams.”

Now that Belle is getting older, Holly and her fiancé are concerned that daycare won’t be able to accommodate her needs after her next surgery while they work. Belle still wakes up multiple times a night because of the discomfort in her hip joints. Unfortunately for Holly, the middle of the night is also when she’s trying to get her schoolwork done.

“The faculty has been more than flexible with me. If I let them know something is going on, they will allow me extra time if they are able, which has been amazing and shows how dedicated they are to seeing students succeed.”

Future Plans

Holly recently left Pfizer and began working as a senior clinical trial manager for Gilead Sciences. She’s graduating from the PMHNP program this spring.

Holly has grown to love the research side of mental health. “Prior to going into this, I always wondered where the medications we give to our patients come from. It’s astounding the amount of work, regulation, and money that goes into trialing an investigational new drug.” Holly plans to stay in neuropsych research for now, “but I want to see patients — I want to work as an NP and eventually have my own practice.”

When asked what she would say to someone else in a similar situation, Holly responded, “Just keep going. Things can always be a little worse. Just know it’s not going to be bad forever.”

For Holly, it’s important that mental health is finally getting the recognition it deserves. “People can get through hard things. People can do hard things when the support is there.”

Much of the support Holly received came directly from Goodwin University and the faculty in the PHMNP program. “I think it’s important for people to know that they are investing in their future. When you’re investing in college, of course, you want a return. By choosing Goodwin, you’re really getting that. I don’t think I would have gotten the support I’ve received here anywhere else.”

At Goodwin University, we understand that life doesn’t stop just because you’ve enrolled in college. That’s why we have the support services to help you academically, professionally, and personally. Goodwin University offers comprehensive support services to help you overcome the challenges you may face while earning your degree.

Interested in learning more about Goodwin University’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program? Reach out to us to learn more today!