My Nursing Career A Whole New Appreciation
Submitted by Mary Ellen Buechel Holbrook, RN, BA, BSN, CPAN, CCRN
Not a day goes by, without reading in the newspaper and hearing over the radio or TV about the rising rate of unemployment in our country. It is this reality that has given me a whole new appreciation for being a nurse.
Now, becoming a nurse was actually not my life long aspiration. In fact, when I attended Florida State University, back in seventy’s, all I wanted to do was attend college indefinitely and enjoy my life as a confirmed bachelorette. I was carrying a major in Psychology and Physical Education, with a minor in Art History and Biology. I was happy as a clam, not a care in the world. Then, rather insidiously, the unthinkable happened! I fell in love. We became engaged a few months later and my life took a dramatic turn. My fiancée was graduating a month after our wedding, and already had a job waiting for him in Atlanta, Georgia. I scurried off to my counselor one day, who sifted through all my courses. By taking one correspondence class, I would graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Psychology.
After getting married and moving to Atlanta, I thought long and hard about what I really wanted to do for my life time career. My initial dream of becoming a Physical Education teacher had already dimmed, and I decided that Bachelor degree graduates in Psychology were a “dime a dozen”. Then it came to me; I probably could do more good as a nurse. I applied to Georgia State University and started in the Nursing degree program in 1976. While in nursing school, I worked at Northside Hospital, first as an EKG technician, then as a nurse’s aide on a medical primary care floor. When I graduated in 1978, there was actually a waiting list for new grads trying to get a job at Northside. Fortunately, since the nurses had already taught me some of the “nitty gritty” skills like, inserting Foley catheters and nasal gastric tubes, as well as performing trach care and suctioning endotrachial tubes, my head nurse gladly gave me a job. Over night, my title changed from Nurses’ aide to Graduate nurse. My uniform also changed from candy striper red and white, to an all white dress, white stockings, white shoes, and that way-too–big for my head, white cap with blue stripe. I had barely finished a three month orientation program, when my husband was notified he was being transferred to Fort Lauderdale. I remember feelings of guilt mixed with panic when I learned of our impending move. How could I possibly tell my head nurse, after such a wonderful orientation, that I was leaving? Obviously, she was very disappointed and didn’t spare any words in telling me so. I wallowed in my guilt a few more days until the realization sunk in. We were moving to sunny Fort Lauderdale!
Though I was but a “green horn” of a nurse, I applied at North Ridge Hospital and was hired immediately. I spent my first year working on a predominately cardiac/pulmonary floor. I then moved on to the Intermediate ICU, and soon after, starting floating to “The Unit” (as it was reverently called). This was actually both an ICU and CCU in the same long room separted by two nurses’ stations. The ICU was dedicated mainly for patients having heart surgery, and the CCU was for patients in congestive heart failure and status post myocardial infarctions. I eventually made the move along with one other nurse, and soon learned that when other nurses referred to this area as “The Unit”, it was more out of a connotation of fear than reverence. These nurses were the “Top Gun” in their field, and they knew it. They had years of experience and a wealth of knowledge I could only dream of. It was like there was this ladder with just two steps, we were on the bottom step, they were on the top, and there was a mile between the two. Soon after we finished orientation, the other nurse jumped ship, and there I was, feeling like a minnow in a sea of sharks. After about another six months, I began to feel a little more comfortable. One day I was taking care of a patient on his post-op day number one. I had just discontinued his arterial line and swan ganz catheter. I was moving right along at a brisk pace, feeling almost smug. I yanked the pressure tubing from the one liter bag of normal saline and immediately realized my mistake. As the bag of saline spun around and around in a circle, I watched my patient’s face in utter surprise as the saline smacked him in the face like a water hose. After what seemed like an eternity, it was over. There was saline everywhere, we were both soaked, and my ego took a beating.
Of course life was not all stressful; I mean this was Fort Lauderdale! We lived two miles from the beach, a half mile from the racquetball courts, five minutes from North Ridge Hospital, and best of all, I worked the 3-11 shift. This meant that I could get up at nine, hit the racquetball courts for two hours every day, then have enough time to either ride my bike down to the beach and back, or run about six miles, with plenty of time to shower and get to work. My husband was not so lucky. As a restaurant manager-in-training; he worked about sixty hours a week. For me, this was heaven, but heaven on earth never seems to last very long. After just two years, my husband received a promotion, and we were heading west to Tampa. I was eight months pregnant, and what struck me as so funny, was that the nurse who seemed to pick me apart the most, was the one who threw my baby shower before we left.
By the following March, I headed over to Tampa General Hospital, and baby in arms, applied for a job. I was looking for a part time position and was elated when I was hired for the night shift in the Cardiac Surgery Unit. It took another full year before I began to feel like I knew what I was doing. But one thing I knew for sure; the longer I worked there, the more I loved it. When I first started working in the Cardiac Surgery Unit, we did seven to eight heart surgeries a day during the week and three to four a day on the weekend. Every day was a challenge, a learning experience; every day was exciting and fun. Most of all, I loved taking care of my patients, especially after their heart surgery. I’d work with my fellow staff to get them stabilized, extubated, and hear their first words post extubation. Of course, some days were more challenging and difficult than others, but for me, this area of nursing was like finding the “love of my life”.
More radical changes were in store for me however, because after a few more years, with an eighteen month old and a two and a half year old, I was divorced and entered the harried world of a single parent. The next four years proved to be the most challenging and thoroughly stressful years of my entire life. Soon after our divorce, my children’s dad moved away, and save for one weekend a month, their child care was completely mine. I struggled, to stay in my home, so when my children were with their dad, I worked double shifts. I often thanked God for being a nurse, and having the ability to work as many hours as my body and mind could handle. Of course, for my children, their mom went from working part time to over time, and day care did not suit them well. They were sick almost non-stop for the first five months, and during that time, I used up all my vacation and sick days for the entire year. Due to my baby sitter’s request, my manager switched my shift to 7A-7P; something that in most careers, would be impossible.
Right about the time that my children were both in school, I noticed a position available for Nurse Epidemiologist in our Infection Control Department. I had always loved Microbiology and even took extra classes in Immunology and Virology in college. Certainly, another attraction was that the hours were Monday through Friday, eight to four thirty, no weekends or holidays. The thought of regaining some normalcy in my family was tantalizing. After several interviews, I landed the position. It was 1987, and America was just waking up to the reality of a strange and harsh epidemic; HIV/AIDS. In the coming year, all hospitals were given the mandate of educating first the licensed, then the unlicensed personnel with four hours of HIV/AIDS education. I joined forces with our manager of employee health, one of our microbiologists, and another educator to handle this task. I’ll never forget the first few classes that I taught. Our hospital CEO came to my second class, all smiles and eager to learn and ask questions. I was so nervous that I had to hold on to the table underneath because my hands were shaking. He actually sent me a thank you note after the class and congratulated me on a job well done. It was in this endeavor that I realized my next passion; teaching. I remember, after two years of doing AIDS education, with some times seven classes a week, our department coordinator coming up to me and saying “now Mary Ellen remember, no more projects”! Later that afternoon, a Meade Johnson representative called me up and said he had just talked with our Employee Health director. He continued with “I hear your expertise is Torch Syndrome”? I held the phone out, stared at it for a few moments and stammered; “well, it could be”. So in a clandestine manner, I scurried off to the medical library. Two weeks later, equipped with slides and knowledge galore, gave my first presentation on TORCH syndrome to a group of labor and delivery nurses.
All was going very well. My life was just what I wanted it to be. I was president of our local chapter of American Practitioner’s in Infection Control, and a soprano on our church choir, as well as a “local yokel” in the racing community from 5ks to marathons. Life as a single parent had become a cinch, not to mention a lot of fun. Both of my children were very active in sports, and I got to relive my years as a cheerleader on the sidelines. But cupid wasn’t done with me yet. I fell in love again, and this time there was nothing insidious about it. My neighbor across the street, asked me out one day at one of our habitual soft ball games, and after the second date, we both fell like “lead balloons.” Six months latter we were married, and like lightning, I was pregnant. My husband worked during the day, and with a baby on the way, I decided to leave Infection Control, and return to the Cardiac Surgery Unit to work part time on the night shift. I had continued to work there about one shift a month, while in Infection Control, so there wasn't much of a transition to be made.
I had our last baby at the ripe old age of forty six, and five years later, we were on the move again. We had fallen in love with the Smoky mountains while on vacations with our children, and my two oldest were both in college. So, after much deliberation, we made the move to beautiful Wears Valley Tennessee. I secured a job at Baptist Hospital in Knoxville in the Intensive Care Unit. This was like a Coronary Care, Intensive Care, and Cardiac Surgery unit all in one, as we had quite a variety in our patient population. I was immersed in that famous southern twang, and I have to say that I met some of the most interesting and genuinely sincere people in my entire life. I became a grandmother when my oldest daughter had a baby three weeks early. Great, I had already asked off for the second week in June, and here it was May 20th, and my daughter calls me to say she’s in labor. I ran excitedly into my manager’s office to make the announcement, she just looked at me, sighed, then smiled and said “You gotta go”. I torn out of there, drove home, packed, and headed off to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. There was my new grandson, a beautiful baby, who quite unknowingly, reached out at that first second, grabbed my heart, and has never let it go.
After a year in the ICU, I heard of a position available in the Recovery Unit. A few of our nurses worked there from time to time, and really liked it. I applied and soon made the transfer. Wow, was this a big change! Within the first few weeks, I all but “locked horns” with one of the nurses who had been there a very long time. It seemed, my brand of critical care, trouble shouting kind of nursing, just wasn't going to fit in there. I was the “old dog” who had to learn some new tricks. I needed to learn that recovery room nursing is just that, recover the patient from anesthesia, and move them to, at least for them, a better place. Finally, one day, it hit me and actually penetrated my thick skull; this nurse really did know her stuff and I could probably learn a lot from her. I asked for her opinion one day, and that turned the tide for me. We became friends, and from her, I learned the basics about being a good recovery room nurse. She is some one I think about almost every day. As time went on, I became affectionately known as “the grazer”. Why? Well, the kitchen was conveniently located right next to the unit, so I snacked on yogurt and nuts all day. On my lunch break, I was allowed to punch out, run about two and a half miles, come back, take a two minute shower, and punch back in. Eventually, my time was split between recovery room, and the pre-op unit. By this time I had been a nurse about twenty five years, and couldn't imagine doing anything else.
We loved living in Tennessee, the mountains, the wholesome people, the beauty of “God’s country”. In the summer we went camping every weekend that I wasn't on call, and in the winter, there was enough snow to have lots of fun with. But some how the whole time we lived there, it seemed a little surreal. I guess we knew that part of our heart never really left Florida, and the thought of being a long distance grandma, was gnawing away at me. So, after just twenty months, we decided it was time to move back to Tampa. With an excited yet a heavy heart, I gave notice. Before we left, the nurses in both units gave me going away parties. They gave me a huge basket packed with nuts, chips, and fruit, for the “grazer”, as well as two beautiful coffee cups. Whenever I use one of these cups for coffee in the morning, I smile and remember Susie and some of the other awesome nurses I will never forget.
We headed back to Tampa in late February of 2003, just after the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. I almost went back to my beloved Cardiac Surgery Unit, but after my experience in Recovery Room at Baptist Hospital, I decided I really liked it. Well, six and a half years latter, I’m still working in our Recovery Room. I believe this is it; I’ll retire here, some day.
When I think back over my thirty one years as a nurse, I realize that all my original dreams have become realities in one way or another. My desire to be a perpetual student is fulfilled being on our “clinical ladder” at Tampa General. It seems I’m always taking a class or teaching a class. I may not actually be a Phys-ed teacher, but I am the “wellness ambassador” for our unit. A bunch of us nurses wear pedometers, keep track of our steps and win prizes at the end of each month. I’m still running races, a little slower; actually a lot slower. Fortunately, my advancing age group keeps me wining trophies, plaques, or what ever they’re giving out. What I didn't consider in the first place, however, was the financial stability that my career would bring me. I mentioned in the beginning of my article about the rising rate of unemployment in our country. My heart aches for those families who are plagued by the uncertainty and fear that unemployment yields. For me as a nurse, I've been blessed with a career where I have the certainty of a regular paycheck and a good raise every year. Not to mention the fact that, as nurses, we generally can move just about anywhere in the U.S. and get a job. The “sky is the limit” as far as opportunities for advancement and variety are concerned. I work in a community of people who really care about each other and generally respect each other. I think that in the medical field, there is a special kind of comradery. We’re all there for the good of our patients. This leads me to my ultimate reason for becoming a nurse; to do more good. Over the thirty one years that I’ve been a nurse, there are many times when I know that either my nursing knowledge or just my compassion has made a difference in the lives of my patients and their families. There are faces of former patients and families I will never forget. Every day that I work in Recovery room, I have something no one can ever take from me. I have the smiles on my patients’ faces who take my hand and say “thank you”. I chose well thirty one years ago and for me, this is as good as it gets, it doesn't get any better!