Monday, February 05, 2007

Nurse is an ‘angel’ to MS patients

Natalie Hackbarth injects a IV into Kurt Friedl during one of his treatments . Dick Riniker photo
By TERRY RINDFLEISCH | La Crosse Tribune

Natalie Hackbarth’s life centers around multiple sclerosis.

Her professional life as well as her life as a volunteer.

The 37-year-old Franciscan Skemp neurology nurse clinician said she is on a mission to educate people about multiple sclerosis, or MS, and helps MS patients live a better life with the disease.

“It would be absolutely terrible if there was nothing we could do to help MS patients, but most of the time there are good things we can do to make their lives better,” Hackbarth said. “I see nursing intervention for every problem.”

MS is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms can range from numbness and fatigue to paralysis and loss of vision.

Hackbarth, one of only four certified MS nurses in Wisconsin, is an advocate for MS patients in the La Crosse area and is an important part of their lives.

“I do become part of their family, their divorces, their deaths and their marriages,” Hackbarth said. “I’m often the one they turn to for their everyday problems.

“My mission is to educate people so they can have better outcomes with their disease,” she said. “To educate and inspire are my two roles in life.”

In 2006, Hackbarth received the outstanding Wisconsin health-care professional award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

She pushed for Franciscan Skemp to have the MS Center designation.

“The MS Center was my dream,” she said.

Besides working with many of the 300 patients at Franciscan Skemp’s MS Center, Hackbarth constantly volunteers on behalf of the MS cause. On her own time, she presents monthly educational programs for MS patients and a five-week session for newly diagnosed patients. She also facilitates a MS journaling group.

Nine years ago, Hackbarth helped start the MS Walk in La Crosse, which raised $90,000 last year. This year she is co-chairwoman of the walk, which is April 29. Her husband, Joel, and her three children are involved in the MS Walk.

“Natalie is the biggest and best cheerleader and supporter we have,” said Judy Thesing, an MS patient. “She is our angel — the one we can talk to, receive suggestions as how to handle a problem, share ideas with, laugh with and even cry with.”

Thesing said MS patients often go home from educational programs with something new and maybe even hope.

“One cannot help but to be easily drawn to her,” Thesing said. “You can sense immediately her genuine caring and kind nature. She is very easy to talk to and an excellent listener.”

Hackbarth doesn’t have MS, but her grandfather and his sister have the disease. She sees them as patients.

“It becomes more personal when someone in your family has it, but it’s always personal when you work so closely with patients,” she said.

Hackbarth worked the night shift as a nurse at Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital for five years before moving to La Crosse in 1996. She took a job in neurology at Franciscan Skemp.

“The first day, I was scared to death because I knew nothing about neurology,” she said.

Hackbarth said her first patient had MS and was from her hometown in Monona, Iowa. “I knew her, and I had dated her son,” she said. “I didn’t know she had MS. But she was comforting to me and had trust in me.”

She read everything she could about MS and attended workshops and conferences to learn more and keep up with the latest developments.

Dr. Gregory Pupillo, a Franciscan Skemp neurologist, said Hackbarth is a nurse and a social worker who is passionate about her work.

“She is dedicated to her patients and the practice and is always looking for ways to help her patients,” Pupillo said. “She feels personally responsible for her patients.

“She makes my job a lot easier and often has the answers for patients,” he said.

Hackbarth said she can help patients read better, have more energy or get around more with some small changes. One patient gave up his driver’s license, and she told him about hand controls so he could drive his vehicle, she said.

“That made a big difference in his life,” she said.

She said her biggest compliments come from her patients when they ask her whether she has MS. “They’re telling me that I get it,” she said.

Hackbarth said she is bothered by patients who ignore information that could help them.

“They could be doing better but they’re not,” Hackbarth said. “What’s depressing is seeing a patient and a problem we could have fixed and changed their life a long time ago.

“My message is get the care and education you deserve,” she said. “I also learn from my patients. They help keep me educated.”

Hackbarth, who often works into the dinner hour, said she has two hopes for MS — “a cure so I can come home for supper, and what’s more exciting is finding the cause and stopping it.”

She said her work is draining and exhausting, but her patients energize her.

“I’ll always be doing this because there’s always something I can do to help,” Hackbarth said. “Besides, who’s going to take care of these patients? I love what I’m doing.”

Natalie Hackbarth snapshot

Monona, Iowa, native.

She and her husband, Joel, live in La Crescent, Minn., with their three children, Kaitlyn, 17; Kalysta, 14; and Wade, 13.

Nurse clinician and certified MS nurse at Franciscan Skemp.

Presents monthly educational programs for MS patients and a five-week session for newly diagnosed patients. Facilitates an MS journaling group.

Instrumental in establishing Franciscan Skemp as an MS Center in Wisconsin.

Nine years ago, Hackbarth helped start the MS Walk in La Crosse.

In 2006, named outstanding health-care professional in Wisconsin by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Serves on Wisconsin MS Chapter’s clinical advisory committee.

Confirmation guide at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, La Crescent.

Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at, or (608) 791-8227.