Marilyn C. Savedra: Dialogue with an Adventist nurse educator and researcher

Marilyn Savedra is a nurse. Not just a nurse, but one who has turned her helping profession into a ministry that has reached out to serve children and adolescents worldwide. As developer of the Adolescent Pediatric Pain Tool, she along with her team of researchers have done pioneering work on the assessment and management of pain in children. The instrument is currently used throughout the world by hospitals and clinics to locate, measure, and properly respond to pain experienced by children and youth.

Born and raised in the northeastern region of the United States, Marilyn Savedra obtained her baccalaureate degree in health education at Walla Walla College, her master’s in pediatric nursing at Loma Linda University, and her doctorate in child nursing at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Savedra has taught in several institutions of higher learning, including the University of California, San Francisco, where she has served as professor and chair of the Department of Family Health Care Nursing.

She has published several articles in research journals and has been honored for her achievements in this field.

Her husband, Albert Savedra, a social worker who served with the Department of Corrections in San Francisco, died prematurely four years ago. Their two children—Andrea and Albert—pursue their own professional careers.

We met with Dr. Marilyn Savedra in her home on the foothills of Berkeley, not far from the bustling central campus of the University of California.

What led you to choose nursing as your profession?

It was almost accidental. As an academy student, I needed to find summer employment to earn my tuition for the coming school year. I went to the New England Sanitarium and Hospital, an Adventist institution near Boston, and applied to work in the housekeeping department. There were no vacancies, but they needed people to take an intensive nurse’s aid course and work during the rest of the summer. I loved it from the start and worked there for the last two summers of my secondary studies.

Were your parents supportive of your choice?

Yes, very much so, although no one in my family was involved in the health-care field. My father, who was not initially an Adventist but later joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and my mother were supportive of Christian education.

Did you find encouragement and support during your advanced studies?

I was fortunate in having at each level an incredibly great group of teachers who nurtured my vocation and modeled Christian qualities. They would invite us, students, to their home and share with us their experiences in life. Some of them had served as missionaries and their stories fascinated us. One of my mentors, Maureen Maxwell, persistently encouraged me to complete my graduate program. Eventually I did!

Did you encounter difficulties due to your Adventist beliefs?

No, I never did. People knew from the start my religious convictions, because I tactfully told them at the beginning, and they respected my values. Later, as a teacher at the university, there was some subtle pressure because, for many years, graduation ceremonies were held on Saturday morning. Some of the graduating students with whom I had developed a mentoring relationship would have liked me to be present, but I chose to be consistent in my Sabbath observance. On one occasion a faculty member asked me, “Can’t you get your minister to allow you to participate in the ceremonies?” I explained that this was my personal decision, not something imposed by someone else. Students understood, however, and respected my beliefs.

Why did you select pediatric nursing as your specialty?

When I was studying in my basic nursing program, I was assigned to do some of my practice at the Boston Floating Hospital. A forward-looking head nurse in one unit allowed parents to stay with their sick children, caring for them under nurses’ supervision. This is considered normal now, but at that time this approach was very innovative. I was challenged by the dynamics and positive results of that interaction. It became my primary field of interest.

What were the issues that attracted you to the specific area of pain management?

As late as the 1970s, little attention was paid to the management of pain in children. If children do experience pain, is it as severe as the pain experienced by adults? Do children require analgesics? How much? How often? I began observing school-age children taken to the hospital as a result of severe burns. The pain I witnessed was an overwhelming experience for me. Later, working with a team of researchers, we carefully developed the Adolescent Pediatric Pain Tool that helps nurses and physicians to determine the location, quality, intensity, onset, duration, and pattern of a child’s pain. This, in turn, helps to fine-tune the clinical response.

How do you relate to frustrations in life?

Basically, life has been good to me. However, the illness and death of my husband was a painful and sad experience for me. Life with Albert had been incredibly rich and fulfilling. But as a Christian, one learns to accept and move on, trusting in God’s wisdom and grace. As I look back on my life, it seems that the Lord has always led. Opportunities just opened up and I moved into an open door.

How do you connect your professional career with your faith?

I cannot compartmentalize my faith and my work. They are integrated parts of my total life experience. I joined the Adventist Church through baptism when I was 12, and through the years I have continued to grow in my understanding of God’s plan for my life.

How do you keep your relationship with God fresh and vibrant?

I find it important to balance private devotional life with public worship. Prayer, Bible study, and devotion on a personal level enrich my involvement in corporate worship through regular church attendance and participation. One of the most significant moments of the day is the time I spend walking near the San Francisco Bay along the Berkeley Marina, away from the phone and the pressures, reflecting, praying silently, and connecting with God.

As a Christian professional, what has given you the greatest satisfaction?

The success of my students. It is very rewarding to see them become passionate about caring for sick children and their families, and then moving on to achieve much beyond what I have myself done. They have become my friends and colleagues—part of my life.

Would you encourage other Adventists to become teachers in public universities?

I believe God calls His children to serve in different places. So, I don’t know if I would necessarily encourage all of them to do so. But if a public college or university is the place where some of them feel called to serve, this is a good place for a committed Christian, particularly if one is ready to serve and work hard without compromising his or her own beliefs and convictions.

Have you thought of a Bible character who could serve as a model for Adventist professionals who work in secular settings?

Recently, during a Sabbath school lesson, we were talking about Paul. He seems to me a prime example of an educated Christian who was able to relate effectively with all types of people—believers and unbelievers, humble and sophisticated, educated and illiterate—and witness for his faith in all kinds of settings.

How did you become involved with the Berkeley Adventist Student Association?

I have always been drawn to college and university students and have enjoyed the relationship. So when a few of them, who were also members of the Berkeley Adventist church, began discussing the possibility of establishing a student association that would be formally recognized by the University of California at Berkeley, I was happy to serve as the faculty sponsor. The members of the student association come to my home on Friday evening for a vespers service and a light supper. During the summer the group usually ranges from eight to 12. During the academic year the group triples in size, and we meet in the church’s student lounge for many of our activities.

Do you involve non-Adventist students in the activities of the association?

Yes, we do. Sometimes Adventist students bring their roommates to vespers. Often they come to our social activities. Some of these students have become Adventists through the positive Christian influence and witness of the group.

What would be your advice to Adventist students in public universities?

First, I would encourage them to seek out other Adventist students on campus or in the area. There is real strength when they interact and support each other. At times this can be done best through a student association. Second, if there is an Adventist church in the vicinity, they should connect and become involved in the life of the congregation. Third, I believe students should take time for their personal devotions. Although it is not always easy, they need to find a quiet place to reflect, study the Bible, and pray. This will not only nurture their faith, but also prepare them to be a witness for God on campus and wherever they may go.

Interview by Humberto M. Rasi. Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is director of the Education Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and chief editor of Dialogue. Dr. Savedra’s address: 1411 Sacramento St., Berkeley; California 94702; U.S.A. E-mail: