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'Organ Lady' teaches ins, outs of addiction

Nurse integrates biology into lessons about substance abuse, consequences for children

Monday January 9, 2012
(Photos by Colleen Williams, RN)
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Colleen Williams, RN, MS, knows it takes more than a lecture to educate children about the dangers of smoking, alcohol and drugs.

After flunking out of high school and battling issues that included substance abuse and depression, Williams eventually turned her life around and vowed to use her nursing background and firsthand experience to inform youth about risky behaviors involving drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Twenty years after flunking out of high school, Williams, of Mount Vernon, Wash., graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1991, and went on to obtain her master's degree in community health administration and health promotion. She worked as a psychiatric nurse for many years and often found herself empathizing with adolescent patients who were struggling with addiction problems.

"I started smoking in fifth grade and was diagnosed with emphysema as an adult," Williams said. "Looking back, I wish I had been aware of the long-term health consequences."


Colleen Williams, RN
In 2000, Williams met Kathy Ketchum, RN, a Washington nurse known as "The Organ Lady" because of the informative anti-smoking programs she taught in local schools. A former smoker, Ketchum presented programs that went far beyond discussing the dangers of tobacco by bringing in organs of nonsmokers as well as those ravaged by years of tobacco addiction.

Because Ketchum's program primarily was offered in Snohomish County, Williams decided to expand upon the concept and to take the program to schools on a statewide basis and beyond. In 2002, Williams joined with Rebecca Rose, a registered respiratory therapist at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., to found the nonprofit, Choice and Consequence. Using scientific facts, a healthy dose of humor and donor organs — which seem to speak volumes — Williams has offered school programs to more than 200,000 children in Montana, Oregon and Washington.

"I also discuss bullying, and racism with the children in a nonthreatening manner," Williams said. "I strive to make the presentations real and understandable without coming across as if I'm preaching to the students."


A girl finds and listens to her heartbeat as part of the Body Buddy program.
Williams, 58, offers the program to students in K-12 and tailors the program materials to make them age-appropriate.

Grades K-3 are taught an introductory "Body Buddy" course on how the body works and how to keep their body, mind and spirit healthy, while grades 4-12 are offered "The Real Inside Story," a program that promotes healthy lifestyles and also features organs including lungs from a cigarette and marijuana smoker, the liver from an alcoholic, a heart damaged by anabolic steroid abuse and human arteries clogged with cholesterol.

While Rose and Ketchum left Choice & Consequence in 2005 and 2010 respectively, to work on other organ programs, Williams now goes by the title of "Organ Lady" and has continued to teach the program while completing her psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program at the University of Washington. With the help of her mother, Marylou Hoidal, 81, who serves as her assistant, Williams offered her program to more than 40 schools last year.

"I want students to know that even if they have a rough childhood, they can still make positive choices, and get help in turning their lives around," Williams said.

More program information: www.choiceandconsequence.org.


Linda Childers is a freelance writer.