Tune in to Focus Carolina during morning, noon and evening drive times and on the weekends to hear stories from faculty members at UNC and find out what ignites their passion for their work. Focus Carolina is an exclusive program on 97.9 The Hill WCHL, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mary Palmer, a professor in UNC’s school of nursing, has authored more than 130 research papers and book chapters on urinary incontinence and other lower urinary tract symptoms in older adults and women.

According to Palmer, she knew at age 16 that she wanted a career working with older adults — and her first job as a nursing assistant at a small nursing home was an eye-opening experience.

“I thought, ‘what better thing to do than work in a nursing home and have all of these wonderful older people like grandparents to me who could tell me stories?’ The naivety was, I did not realize the medical conditions, some health conditions that they would have, but they all became very, very dear to me,” said Palmer.

Struck by the strong odor present in her first nursing home job that was explained by another nurse as a fact of life at that age, that patients often experienced urinary incontinence and other lower urinary tract symptoms, Palmer committed to studying these conditions to help patients in ways they hadn’t been before.

“The only way we can improve things is by becoming educated and knowledgeable about it,” she said.

In her classes and clinics, Palmer seeks to continue work on both patients are healthcare providers fully understanding the conditions and causes behind incontinence.

Over her career, Palmer has brought the taboo of the subject of incontinence into the open. She works to help nursing students understand its impact on patients, the embarrassment it may cause them and how that affects their dignity.

“It becomes almost normative to individual women,” said Palmer. “This is something that happens. And when we would talk with women about incontinence, they would say, ‘well, my mother had a weak bladder, so I must have a weak bladder.’ … A lot of people don’t seek help for incontinence and all of the research I’ve done.”

According to Palmer, her work and teaching has inspired some students to make further progress in the field, as well.

“I have a doctoral student right now who’s looking at pelvic floor muscle exercise programs and how effective it is for different outcomes,” said Palmer. “Her ultimate plan is to take it from the individual woman who’s using that program to scaling it up to populations — and that’s incredibly exciting, to have students who are planning to go out and broaden this experience for other people and to take it to more and more students.”

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