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The Supreme Challenge
An R.N.'s fight against size discrimination
makes a case for us all

By Susan Lawrence Rich

From Radiance Summer 1991

"If they had told me to bend down and lick the floor, I would have. I was that afraid," admits Sharon Russell, describing her experience with nursing instructors at Salve Regina College. After two torturous years in the college's nursing program, Russell found herself without a diploma and without any self-esteem.

"I had always wanted to be a nurse," she says. "It was my dream. And these women tried to take away my dream because they didn't like the way I looked." Russell has discussed her experiences at Salve Regina on national TV, with newspaper reporters, and in the courts. Now she awaits the verdict of Supreme Court judges, who will decide if she was wronged by the Sisters of Mercy who administrated the nursing program at the small private Catholic college in Newport, Rhode Island.

When Russell first applied to Salve Regina in 1982, she interviewed in person. The school accepted her, and the interviewer made no comment about her weight, 280 pounds at the time.

She completed general education classes her freshman year and then submitted another application to the nursing department for her sophomore year. She was accepted. Again, no personnel from the school made any comment about her size.

However, Russell says, "the first day of class my sophomore year, the verbal abuse began. I didn't fit the image of a nurse. They told me I would fail, and they made sure I did. They told me I didn't look right, that something was wrong with me. They singled me out, saying things like, 'We're not going to get a uniform to fit you. You'll never get around a bed.'"

One day Russell was sitting outside class with another student, who was smoking. "I was eating Fritos. One of the teachers came out and grabbed the bag out of my hands. 'Don't you know what you're doing to yourself?' she asked. She didn't say anything to my friend who was smoking."

Russell says her lawyer likens her experience at Salve Regina to "Chinese water torture. Each isolated drop doesn't look so bad. It's all the drops together that do the damage."

Russell's junior year at Salve Regina focused on clinical nursing, with instructor-supervisors watching their assigned students practice skills in a hospital. Russell recalls, "One of my supervisors, Mrs. Lavin, was on Weight Watchers. She was always telling me that I was limiting myself, that I didn't have a good professional image."

Russell felt that she was given "patients who were more difficult to care for. But it only made me work harder to prove the teachers wrong." And Mrs. Lavin continually pointed out ailments of fat patients, saying, "This will happen to you. Can't you see that?'"

During the first semester of her junior year, some of the nursing staff approached Russell and asked her to see a "psychologist." Russell discovered later that the woman wasn't a psychologist at all. "She was a staff nurse with a psych background. This nurse wanted to know what had happened to me to make me fat. She asked about my family, my personal life, my personal habits. She was downright rude, but I answered all of her questions because I was so afraid. My God, I was only nineteen years old."

This nurse produced a contract requiring Russell to lose weight in order to stay in the nursing program. Russell refused to sign the contract and took it to a social worker on campus whom she had befriended. "My friend was outraged. She called the nursing department. Then they came down on me, saying the contract was privileged information I had no right to discuss. Grading was subjective, and so I worried."

At the end of the first semester of her junior year, Russell was just about to take a nursing final when she was called into the dean's office, where Mrs. Lavin told her she had failed clinical nursing.

"They told me I couldn't dedicate myself to a diet; therefore I couldn't dedicate myself to nursing. Another of my teachers was also there. She is fat, too, maybe a size 18. I'm a 24. I was wondering what degree of fat was okay. Fifty pounds? Five? They claimed I wasn't projecting the professional image they wanted and that if I didn't sign their contract, I couldn't continue after Christmas break. I started crying, and then I signed it. The contract stated that I had to lose a minimum of two pounds a week. I had to meet weekly with an instructor and prove the loss by showing her a Weight Watchers' weigh-in card. And I had to maintain my G.P.A."

After taking her finals, Russell went home for the holidays and enjoyed her vacation. On her first day back she was asked for her Weight Watchers' card. She replied that she hadn't started yet and was concerned about the cost of joining the group. The nursing instructor asked if Russell had a car. How did she put gas in it? When Russell explained that her parents had given her a credit card for gas, the instructor retorted that her parents could foot the bill for Weight Watchers, too.

"I didn't tell anyone about this, not even my family. I was too humiliated, too embarrassed. Besides, the instructors told me not to tell anyone."

Russell had been put on her first diet when she was five, at her pediatrician's recommendation. "I've never had success following a diet," she says. "I do that common yo-yoing. Dieting under pressure is impossible. Every time I submitted my Weight Watchers' card, I felt like a small child getting my hand slapped." Russell completed her junior year, which she describes as "sheer hell. The only light spot were two other terrific instructors. Mrs. Waters, also a fat woman, fostered me and helped me to grow. When Mrs. Lavin cut me apart, Mrs. Waters gave me a flying review and said the staff loved me. And there was Ms. Caldwell, a pediatric nurse, who got me interested in kids." Both of these women would come to Russell's aid later.

One week before Russell started her senior year, on August 21, 1985, she received a letter from Salve Regina College stating that she was not welcome to return and finish her studies.

Russell articulates the facts of her case with eloquence, but she hesitates when describing the emotional aftermath of her stay at Salve Regina.

"My personality began to change. I started to believe that I wasn't worthy. I had always been an extrovert. I was voted the most friendly in high school. I was the treasurer of my class and the president of my sorority. My freshman year at Salve, I ran for president of my class. But they beat me up verbally. I became an introvert. I stopped believing in myself.

"People will always be mean because I'm fat, but I'd never let them beat me up before. My mother had always told me that people who made fun of me were un-educated, ignorant and un-Christian. But here were these women: they were intelligent, they had degrees, and they professed to be Christians. Some of them were nuns."

Their daughter's plight infuriated Russell's parents. They contacted the family lawyer the day after the letter of dismissal arrived. He referred them to a lawyer in Rhode Island. When Russell called his office and related her story, he couldn't believe it. He was a good Catholic who donated to the church. He thought he could just call the school and take care of the problem. After a failed attempt to do that, he and Russell decided to proceed with a lawsuit.

Russell filed eight counts against Salve Regina College and five individual instructors. The charges included discrimination, infliction of emotional damages, invasion of privacy, and breach of contract. The judge dismissed five of the counts before the trial began and two during the trial, reducing the contested issue to breach of contract.

In April of 1988 Russell confronted the five nursing instructors from the college again. "It's hard to explain how much fear they inspired in me. I had called another fat girl who attended Salve with me and asked her to testify. She had refused because she had been afraid to see those women again. And she had already graduated and had been practicing for two years! There was a great amount of fear. The class started out with sixty students; the drop-out rate was half."

With the fear came anger, too. "I had paid big bucks for their abuse. My parents weren't rich. Student loans and scholarships paid my tuition." By the time of the trial in 1988, Russell had already completed a nursing program at St. Joseph's in Hartford, Connecticut, and had a position at a hospital in Florida. "I had been working in the real world. No patient cares if you're fat or not. They care about your skills."

Russell says that her struggle has made her a much stronger person. "I saw a psychologist who helped me rebuild myself. She helped me learn that I have the power to walk away, to remove myself from any situation that is uncomfortable. I would have walked away from Salve if I had known then what I know now.

Testimony and evaluations from other instructors helped the jury see favorably. Ms. Caldwell testified on her former student's behalf. Russell explains that "she was working on her doctoral at Brown University, and so she had nothing to lose by helping me. She told the jury she had attended meetings in which staff members had discussed how they could get rid of me."

When the seven-day trial ended, the jury decided in favor of Russell. They awarded her $44,000 for lost tuition and wages. Salve Regina, however, appealed the decision. A circuit court in Boston reviewed the transcripts and let the decision stand. Again Salve Regina appealed. Again the court found in favor of Russell. Now a new appeal has brought the case before the Supreme Court.

"It's funny," says Russell, "in every interview the nurses from Salve give, they tell the press that I am dragging this out for fame and fortune. But they keep appealing. And the $44,000-I don't plan on seeing any of that. It won't even cover my legal fees."

Even before her case went to the Supreme Court, Russell's story made the papers and talk shows, including "Geraldo" and "Oprah Winfrey." "People say, 'This must be great. How exciting for you.' But it has brought me a lot of headache and heartache," Russell confesses. "I still have nightmares. I still have sweats, vomiting, diarrhea. Every time I talk about it, I live it again. And I have to get ready for the press bombardment again when the Supreme Court delivers its answer this spring."

Talking with the public is hard work, Russell says. "People's first impression is always based on what you look like, and that's fat. I try to maintain eye contact and watch my body language carefully. I talk for ten or fifteen minutes, and people forget I'm fat. I can see the change in their perceptions. They see that I'm just like them, only in a bigger body. People have preconceived notions that fat people are sloppy and lazy and have no will power, but then they decide they like me. The filming of an episode of "Inside Edition" took twelve hours. Afterwards, the camera crew decided to get to know me, so I went out for drinks and dinner with the guys."

All this publicity has brought Russell a lot of support from the outside world. "There are a hundred letters on my dining room table right now. Two of them are negative; the rest are positive. Some letters are from fat people, and they tell me that I've given them courage. Some are from people in minority groups, who say they understand. They've experienced the same oppression because of their skin color. I get flowers and cards. I've gotten letters from Germany, New Zealand, and Brazil. I received twelve letters from Saudi Arabia after the military paper Stars and Stripes ran my story. The soldiers say they're proud of me for standing up for my personal freedom. People care about what I'm doing. What I'm doing, I'm doing for them, too."

Russell says that what she'd most like to see is an amendment to the Constitution about size discrimination. "I want to bust all those stereotypes about being fat. I want people to stop and think. I want them to be better to one another."

So, with her first dream realized, Sharon Russell, R.N., has embraced another. The caretaker is at work, not only as a supervising pediatric nurse of a hospital in Florida, but also in the Supreme Court of the United States, fighting for dignity often denied people because of the way they look. �

SUSAN LAWRENCE RICH, a wife, mother, teacher, and sometime freelance writer, lives in Oakdale, California.

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