There’s another side of registered nurse Morgan Abel that few of her patients know.

While she wears medical scrubs for her job at Columbus Regional Hospital, in other environments she dons a crown and occasionally a form-fitting swimsuit — out of the water.

As the newly selected Miss Indiana USA, the 25-year-old North Vernon resident will represent the Hoosier state in the Miss USA pageant, where the winner goes on to compete for the global title of Miss Universe. She will compete for Miss USA a year from now in Las Vegas.

Abel won a preliminary event, the Miss Indiana USA title, over five other competitors Nov. 29 at The Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel.

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This wasn’t her first pageant win.

In 2008, she was crowned Miss Teen Indiana USA. She also won the 2010 Miss Southern Indiana Pageant.

Along with earning the title Miss Indiana USA last month, she won the Miss Photogenic award.

Abel is modest about her new title. For many years, she didn’t even tell co-workers that she competed in pageants.

“When you say pageant, people think of (the former television series) ‘Toddlers and Tiaras,’” Abel said.

“I just want to be a good role model. I work 40 hours a week. That is my first responsibility.”

Pageant competition is far from the world of nursing, where Abel works in the hospital’s mental health unit.

In that area of the hospital, Abel is far better known for her ability to empathize and communicate with patients who are in challenging situations, said Christi Ryder, Abel’s supervisor.

“She’s a wonderful nurse,” Ryder said. “She is just very intelligent, able to stay calm and empathize with patients in a very therapeutic way.”

Abel, who began working at Columbus Regional Hospital just over a year ago, was nominated by her peers for the hospital’s Nightingale Award in her first year of eligibility.

The award, named after nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, honors nurses who display exceptional skill in caring for patients.

Driven to help others

Abel said several members of her family battled serious bouts of bipolar depression, something that pushed her to pursue a career in psychiatric care.She hopes to dispel the image of clinical psychiatric care perpetuated in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which depicted mental health nurses as abusive and manipulative and the patients as their more sane and humane counterparts.“People come in (to a mental health unit) at a very low point in their lives,” Abel said. “In the movies, people on the psych ward are disheveled and dangerous. But in reality, it’s very brave of people to reach out for help.”

Abel said she decided to compete in pageants to overcome some of her own issues with anxiety.

“I started when I was 15 because I loved singing. But I was so scared of people that I would only sing to myself. My mother brought me a brochure for a different pageant,” Abel said. “I thought she was crazy. But she said, ‘Let’s make it a competition.’ My confidence has been increasing ever since.”

In seventh and eighth grades, she started performing publicly at the Park Theatre Civic Centre in North Vernon. She went on to perform on Jenny Jones’ daytime talk show after winning a national singing competition.

Later, when she was a sophomore at Jennings County High School in 2006, she opened for country music singer Joe Nichols at a venue called The Barn in Sanford, Florida.

Now that she has won the title, she plans to prepare for the national competition next December in Las Vegas.

Closer to home, Abel has been using her crown to help others.

She recently contributed a “Princess-for-a-Day” package to a silent auction that raised money for Columbus 13-year-old Alana Cook, who is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. The package included a dress, new hairstyles and manicures for the high bidder.

The pageant winner had been diagnosed herself with brain cancer when she was 9. She and her family moved into the Ronald McDonald House at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for 90 days while she underwent treatment.

The Miss USA pageant does not include a talent competition, so Abel’s preparation focuses on picking the perfect gown and swimsuit and practicing interview questions.

But in her medical career, which began when she earned a nursing degree at IUPUC, Able is considering pursuing a master’s degree at Indiana University with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner in a mental health unit.

That, for her, would be a crowing achievement.

Morgan Abel

Age: 25

Education: Bachelor of nursing degree, IUPUC

Career: Registered nurse, mental health unit at Columbus Regional Hospital

Interests: Snowboarding, racing, and singing.

Community service: Volunteer with a number of local and national nonprofit organizations including the Turning Point Domestic Violence Services shelter, Red Cross and the National Alliance of Mental Health.