When Chris Schmaltz told his mother that he wanted to be a nurse, right before he changed his major at the registrar’s office, she said not to do it. As he recalls it, she said, ‘You don’t have the personality to be a nurse.’ As he shared this story, Schmaltz—a nurse practitioner who tends to patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. David’s Hospital— exudes a quiet and calming energy and seems well-suited to the stressful environment of taking care of ill or premature babies. A good-natured smile crosses his face at the memory.
Nurse practitioners are involved with every aspect of what’s happening, from prescribing medications to performing emergency procedures that can save a baby’s life. It’s this type of collaborative effort that he enjoys and why he chose NICU as his specialty.
As a man in a field dominated by women, Schmaltz is also upending gender stereotypes: According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, more than 95 percent of nurse practitioners are women; in Schmaltz’s NICU group, three of the 14 practitioners are men. Regardless of any conventional wisdom surrounding gender, his quiet courage provides comfort to all the parents in the NICU and puts everyone in the room at ease.
Schmaltz, whose grandmother was a nurse anesthetist and whose mother is a nurse practitioner, always knew that he wanted to help people, but he wasn’t sure how it would become a career. He was open to the possibilities. Parents who are in the NICU are at their most vulnerable—most likely they’re terrified what might happen to their son or daughter. What better way to let them know that there’s always a person who cares about them? He looked at nursing, and in particular the role of nurse practitioner, as a way to emotionally help people and be their anchor of support.
“The joy and privilege of watching a baby being born is not lost on me. There’s nothing more amazing than being in a situation as life-changing for the parents as welcoming their new child,” said Schmaltz, who began his career in 2008. “I know more about birthing and breast-feeding and lactation than most men care to know.”
Arriving in the NICU at 7 a.m. to get a report on what’s going on, Schmaltz and the neonatologist look at all the patients and divide up the day’s work. The next five hours are filled with writing orders, checking fluids, examining lab results, adjusting medications, conferring with colleagues, ordering tests and viewing X-rays. In between, he attends deliveries and talks with parents—providing critical information or simply providing reassurance. After a quick lunch, he (and whoever else is on staff for the night) observes all the babies and performs procedures. At any one time, there are 30 to 60 babies in the unit; most NPs work long enough shifts that the NICU feels like home.
“Chris is confident and courageous in a quiet way that’s usually not obvious to people who meet him casually,” said Daniel Grossman, his boyfriend. “When you meet him socially, he is so quiet and shy that you might not think of him as a strong or confident person, but hand him a baby who needs to be resuscitated in a matter of seconds and his response is simply, ‘I got this.’”
There’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Nothing Man”—“You want to see courage, I can show you courage you can understand”—that Schmaltz often thinks of regarding the NICU: “The need that those parents have to be with their babies, and to be strong, and to leave them in our care—it’s got to be horrible. People who, through all that, don’t shut down and are still participating in their baby’s care. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“Chris is an incredibly understanding and empathetic person,” said Kerri Kansas, a neonatologist who works with Schmaltz and has become his friend over the last two years. “He makes a true effort, far beyond anything that I can do, to see the good in everyone and every situation.”
Kansas and Schmaltz bonded over a shared appreciation for dry humor and the ability to inject moments of levity into what is generally a serious work environment. “Chris is my friend and partner—we work together as a team,” said Kansas, who is taking the summer off to spend time with her husband and children. “(Schmaltz) cares beyond what is called for in an NICU.”
Before he was a nurse practitioner, he worked in Omaha following graduate school; it was not a good fit. He’d always been in awe of nurse practitioners: They could talk to parents in a special way that would calm them down, educate nurses and residents and they had a strong depth of knowledge on neonatology.
Perhaps surprisingly, he’s not a big caffeine person, but the day before he works, he’s home and in bed by 10 p.m. “Right before the birth, I’m making sure we have everything we need in case there’s an emergency. That the laryngoscope is okay, that suction works, that oxygen is set up, that the bag mask is ready to go,” said Schmaltz. “Once we hear the baby scream, we can let our guard down because we know we’re not going to need that.”
Schmaltz explained what all of the acronyms after his name mean—basically they all relate to his level of academic achievement, specialization and medical accreditation. He earned his undergraduate degree in nursing from Georgia Southern University and his Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania. For the unschooled, Licensed Practical Nurses and Licensed Vocational Nurses are in charge of nursing tasks, Registered Nurses administer nursing care, and Nurse Practitioners are mid-level providers who prescribe medications and perform procedures and have in-depth specialty in a particular area.
“You’re always advancing, perfecting and trying to deliver the best care possible for the baby,” said Schmaltz, who finds peace through Anusara yoga practice. That “nature is perfect” mantra from yoga and Buddhism is cliché, but if you look at nature, it’s not perfect. For instance, there are tornadoes. “Human beings can create their own tornadoes through our actions. We have to plant the seeds of our own karma,” said Schmaltz, raised Catholic and always inquisitive about that religion. “I think [yoga] helps me be a kind person and to realize that with my words and actions I don’t want to be a tornado. I want to be nice and uplift people.”
“Chris makes a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our community—tiny babies—and, as a result, he makes a difference in our world!” said Nancy Beckett, a colleague in the NICU.
Just Being Himself
Born in Iowa, raised in North Dakota and Atlanta, Schmaltz maintained a strong connection to his rural roots by taking frequent summer trips to his family’s cattle ranch, Hogue Island, situated near the Missouri River in Bismark, North Dakota. As he got older, summers meant babysitting his two sisters, Elizabeth, who was adopted from Romania when he was 9, and Caren, born when he was 13. In fact, the birth of Caren was an early indication of the magical and special nature of babies and the birth process for him. “They said, okay, go outside and wait. An hour later, I came in and there was this human being!” said Schmaltz, adding, “I saw her, held her and fell in love with her.”
In the small town, mostly Catholic and Lutheran environs of Bismark, Schmaltz wasn’t interested in working on the farm—he’d play with the cats, watch Brady Bunch reruns and eat ice cream sandwiches. Nevertheless, his grandfather instilled the long-lasting value of a decent day’s work.
“It’s very important to be proud of your work, to be passionate about it and to tell the truth—those are the lessons I learned from Pete,” said Schmaltz. “He lived for that farm and his cows. When they were giving birth, he’d wake up every few hours to check on the cow and calf.”
From about the age of 9 until 13, he went through what he called his “Who am I?” phase. Unlike many of the other boys, he had no interest in playing baseball and basketball. The fifth grade was the first time he ever heard the term gay used as a negative slur. Schmaltz was 14 when Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time under the headline “I’m Gay” in 1997. That watershed moment prompted a conversation with his mother over lunch.
He posed two questions to her: What would you say if your friend was Ellen? She said she’d be fine with it. What would you do if your son was gay? She said she would still love him. He said, “I’m gay.” As he recalls it, she struggled at first. Although he believes she had an inkling about his sexuality, like many parents of lesbian or gay children, she might have been telling herself it was not true.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” That was his inner dialogue at that time. “If you think about it, what you’re telling someone is ‘the perception of me that you had isn’t true. This is who I really am.’ So, what’s sad is—they have to change their perception or understanding of you,” said Schmaltz. “I always look at it as a good thing because now you can be closer to someone and truly know them.” Schmaltz’s parents have met Grossman, and they’ve welcomed him into the family.
“I came out with a very, very strong belief that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. If someone has a problem with it, that’s their problem,” Schmaltz said. “I wish I could impart that message to gay youth: there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with other people.”
Schmaltz said that he felt empowered at the moment he came out to his mother because he was verbalizing his own truth and choosing to speak from authority. “I’ve always been myself,” he said. “It may not always be easy to be in your own truth or to do what you know is right, but you almost get a sense of power and inner calm.”
Spreading Good Karma
You never know where or how Cupid will strike. For Schmaltz, meeting his boyfriend came about because of something negative. In September of 2009, Atlanta police officers raided the Eagle, a gay bar. They forced everyone in the bar, including Schmaltz, to lie face down on the ground and produce identification; some officers used gay slurs.
An independent investigation produced a 343-page report that detailed how 16 officers lied or destroyed evidence in the case and violated the constitutional rights of patrons at the bar. Ultimately, the patrons at the bar won a lawsuit against the Atlanta Police Department that resulted in a wholesale revamp of how the force operates. The plaintiffs were represented by Atlanta attorney Daniel Grossman, who at that time had taken a break from his law practice to run an Internet company. However, he was so incensed by the injustice of what happened that he volunteered and convinced the Southern Center for Human Rights and Lambda Legal Defense Fund to join him.
“I’m most proud of the court orders we obtained, which mandate procedural reforms of the Atlanta Police Department,” Grossman said. “Chris’ role in the Eagle case was heroic, too, in a quiet everyday way. He and 25 other men were willing to take personal risks to stand up to the police department and defend their rights as Americans. Many others shied away, but Chris did what he knew was right.”
Schmaltz and Grossman had communicated by email, so when the case was settled and Schmaltz was in Atlanta to visit family, he invited Grossman to brunch at La Tavola, an Italian trattoria located in Atlanta’s Virginia Highland neighborhood. “I was a little reluctant to go out socially with a former client,” said Grossman. “Chris dared me to visit him in Austin. Of course, now I’m very glad that he was so persistent.”
They see each other every two weeks, taking trips to either city or traveling to places like San Diego. “He changed how the city of Atlanta police force operates,” said Schmaltz. “He’s just my best friend and we both have a deep passion for making the world a better place.”
“Whenever Chris talks about how much he loves holding his babies you realize what a wonderful man he is. I’m still just amazed at the things Chris can do at work: He can take a baby who isn’t breathing and bring him back to life, and I still think that is rather miraculous,” said Grossman. “And I’m sure the baby’s parents would call him a hero.”
An avid reader of Marvel comic books, Schmaltz also enjoys more traditional literary fare. He was reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Rachel Maddow’s Drift when we met in May. Continuing to improve his professional practice, speak at a national nursing conference, publish more articles in nursing publications: These are some of Schmaltz’s goals. He sees himself settling down and buying a house or condo in Austin with Grossman. And yes, he’d like to be a father someday as well.
“I would like to not burn dinner,” deadpanned Schmaltz. People have different talents—I’ve always been able to be empathetic towards other people in difficult situations.”