Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Ila K. Haffer Shebar ’81 has come a long way from her high school days as a candy striper. After a career spanning more than two decades, starting at Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA on a post-op surgical floor, then as a pediatric-OB/GYN outpatient nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester, MA, through years as a school nurse for the City of Springfield and the Longmeadow school system, Shebar now works with Pioneer Valley Urology in Springfield, MA specializing in women’s pelvic health and continence.
AMONG THE MANY HATS she has worn, Shebar has taught at Youville Hospital School of Practical Nursing in Cambridge, MA worked as an office manager for Liberty Rehabilitation in Springfield, and has been director and instructor in the aerobics department of the JCC in Longmeadow for more than a quarter-century. She still teaches a 6 a.m. class there every Tuesday and Thursday and is in her office by 8.
With her BSN from AIC, Shebar went on to earn an MS in communication and information management from Bay Path College in 2006, an MSN in 2009 from the University of Massachusetts, and is the author, since 2010, of “Ask Ila,” a column on women’s health for the Health and Science section of The Republican and on MassLive.com.
“I was good in the sciences,” said Shebar in the matter-of-fact, almost offhand way of someone unaccustomed to talking about herself. “I always thought I wanted to be a nurse. In those days, I wasn’t encouraged to go to medical school, so that never crossed my mind.”
“Those days” are long gone and Shebar is thriving in her role as a women’s health specialist. “I’m very happy as a nurse practitioner. I have autonomy. I make decisions on my own with a physician to back me up. It’s financially rewarding. I have no regrets.”
Shebar began her journey at AIC as a member of the first nursing class to graduate from the College’s BSN program. “I didn’t actually choose AIC,” Shebar admits. “I wanted to go to Boston College, but they wouldn’t give me housing and I didn’t want to be a commuter. So I went to the University of Florida, but it was a disaster being away from home.”
When a guidance counselor told Shebar about a new nursing program at AIC, she reached out to the college, never imagining it would be more than a temporary measure. “I came to AIC knowing nothing about it. In fact, my plan was to transfer to Boston College, but I fell in love with the small school environment. I became an RA my junior and senior years at Magna Hall, and I wound up being very active on campus. AIC turned out to be a great fit.”
Shebar joined a sorority, the Order of Diana, and started the Student Nurses Association, serving as president for its first fledgling years. “Nursing was so new on campus and this was a way of supporting one another. It was also important for us to keep some of the traditional ceremonies. For example, we really wanted a capping ceremony, so we worked hard to get that approved and organized.”
Shebar also remembers some standout instructors. “Professor Longo for biology was my favorite. I loved her classes. She really stimulated me intellectually. She was a wonderful teacher and I learned so much from her. Rachel Chandler Tierney ran the nursing program. She was a role model, an inspiration, and a mentor. I stayed in contact with her on and off for years.”
Shebar, who was elected vice president of her senior class and named to Who’s Who in American Colleges, was also voted Homecoming Queen, but the title came without the traditional crown. “I was a class officer and we were making all the preparations for homecoming,” she said. “I was too embarrassed to buy my own crown, so I never got one.”
Missed coronations aside, Shebar has fond memories of her undergrad years. “I loved AIC. The small campus felt like family. It was a good place to be. It was a very good place to be.”
After graduation, Shebar began her nursing career and discovered that she really liked women’s health. “I went to an open house about becoming a nurse practitioner, so that was in my mind early on.”
Shebar met and married a med school resident, and the plan was that once her husband finished his training and got settled, it would be her turn. The couple had three boys and life went along according to plan, until it didn’t: Shebar was widowed when her sons Colin, Bryan, and Alex were 11, 12, and 14, turning life as they had known it inside out.
“I just got up every day and did what had to be done,” said Shebar. “What’s the alternative? I couldn’t climb into bed and stay there.”
Not only didn’t she climb back into bed, literally or metaphorically, exercising at dawn kept her sane, a vital component while raising three teenage boys, one of whom is a Type I diabetic. “Exercise is huge for me. It’s my mental health. I worked out every morning.”
Shebar also started running. “The JCC where I teach aerobics has a Father’s Day 10k, so I decided I was going to run it.” One race led to another and eventually to a friend suggesting Shebar join a group that runs 200 miles in 24 hours. Shebar has run four Reach the Beach relays in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain Relay in Vermont.
“I did the 200-milers five times, wonderful experience.”
Shebar’s ultimate professional goal, to become a women’s health nurse practitioner, was still simmering in the background, but the closest programs were at Yale or Boston College, requiring long, impractical commutes. However, as Shebar tells it, “It seemed like Providence stepped in. In the fall of my youngest son’s senior year in high school, I saw an ad in the newspaper about UMass receiving a grant to start a women’s health nurse practitioner program. I looked into it, applied and got accepted. I started the following June and went for two years around the calendar. And my class was the first and last cohort of that program.”
Coincidentally, her youngest son went to UMass for his undergrad degree and then to AIC for his graduate degree in education. “We did exactly the opposite of the other,” said Shebar.
Today, Shebar’s sons are 26, 28 and 30. Her eldest, Alex, is community director of Yelp, London; her middle son, Bryan, is between positions, and her youngest, Colin, teaches middle school history in Franklin, MA.
Shebar doesn’t run competitively anymore but, for the past two years, she and Colin have competed in the Rugged Maniac, a 5k with 28 obstacles. It’s an impressive feat at any age, but not surprising that Shebar accepted the challenge, considering she knows a thing or two about obstacles and how to summon the grit and stamina to overcome them. “The course is set up on a motocross track, so it’s quite hilly. You’re running through fire, dodging things that are hanging, climbing a wall, going under barbed wire—it’s all about the obstacles. We did it for the fun of it. We got a little cut up and banged up. Nothing major.”
But for Ila Shebar, runner of marathons and overcomer of obstacles, nothing is quite as rewarding as the daily healing work of her mind, hands, and heart. “I always want people to walk out of my office feeling that all of their needs were met in a respectful manner,” she said. “I love when I can help people feel better. Seeing patients come to me in tears, and the next time they come in, they’re smiling? That makes it all worthwhile.”
-By Ellen Dooley