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Nurses on nursing: Portraits of American nurses

Every nurse has a story. In the Spring 2013 issue of Scrubs, five dedicated individuals describe what brought them to the profession and how their jobs add meaning to their lives.

Jessica Graef, MSN, RN, CNL
Children’s National Medical Center
Washington, D.C.

Nursing is a second career for me. As a kid, I never would have predicted I’d grow up to be a nurse. I was interested in developing countries and famine relief because my dad did that kind of work. I lived overseas as a child, and after I got married, my husband and I moved to Mexico City, where he was a professor and I worked at the US Agency for International Development.

While we were living in Mexico, I got pregnant with twins–my kids were born ten weeks prematurely and put in the neonatal ICU. We moved back to the US when the kids were about a year old, and for a while I was a stay-at-home mom. When I thought about going back to work, I kept finding myself drawn to the health field.

My plan was to put my international experience and nursing together to do development work again. But life takes you to funny places. I started on the hematology/oncology unit four years ago as a new RN. I am very happy where I am; nursing is a great profession and a perfect fit for my interests.

I am challenged intellectually by the physiological critical thinking I do on an everyday basis. And I am able to help my patients emotionally. I’ve had some harrowing hospital experiences with my children, and that makes me more comfortable dealing with families and patients.

What I’ve learned about humanity through this job is the strength of families. I thought I’d see people just losing it, but these families are tremendously strong. I’m sure they go through their breakdowns, but they come back with incredible strength and love. They deal with some really hard issues and somehow hold it together. They pull from their inner strength to cope and to help their children.

I’ve learned so much about myself from seeing how other people interact, how they deal with things like this, and how they are able to come up with compassion in the most horrendous situations. I always try and have a sense of hope because without that, what do you have? Some people think that pediatric oncology nurses are angels or saints, but I have to say that I have learned and gained from my patients and their families just as much as I have given to them.

Deborah Nettles, FNP
Interim LSU Public Hospital
Mom & Baby Mobile Unit
New Orleans, La.

I grew up on the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. My mother was a nurse and I wanted to be a nurse since I was a little girl. Most of my career has focused on women’s health. Now I work on the Mom & Baby mobile unit, which is fully equipped with an exam room. We can do obstetrical ultrasounds on the bus. It goes out five days a week and serves three different communities, including the Ninth Ward. I’ve seen patients who are the granddaughters of people I’ve known.

Many of our women live in pretty secluded areas—some not even accessible by bus. Others need to change buses three or four times to get to a clinic where the wait time can be two hours for a ten-minute appointment. We can use time much more efficiently by gathering together a group of eight women for a two-hour meeting in a program for obstetrical patients called Centering Pregnancy.

We do assessments in a private corner, the rest of the time is spent on education and counseling. We talk about immunizations, feedings, what is normal and what isn’t. Our research shows that with Centering Pregnancy the outcome is better for both the baby and the mother. About 50 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned, so we also continue healthcare after delivery. We want to make sure women understand about contraception and that there are ways to plan their pregnancies. I think it’s very important to provide support and I enjoy the opportunity to communicate with these women.

When I grew up, we didn’t go to the doctor very often. As far as women’s heath was concerned, we didn’t discuss it. Something as simple as a menstrual cycle was a mystery. That’s how old I am and how long I’ve been around. I believe the women’s services we provide, and the things we talk about in our program, have been instrumental in saving many lives.

Tonia Faust, CCNM, RN
Hospice program coordinator
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, La.

A lot of people want to know how I can take care of men who have committed horrific crimes. I tell them I’m not here to judge them. When I am working with a patient, my thoughts are in the present. I don’t look at their rap sheets, and I don’t know what the majority of my patients have done to be here. I don’t want to know. I know they’ve done something bad, but my job is to take care of a human being. I don’t treat these patients any differently than I would a patient out on the street.

The inmates in hospice care have six months or less to live. What makes this program unique is that we have 26 inmate volunteers, who do this work for no compensation at all. They have their regular jobs, and come here during their downtime—either daily, every other day, or if it’s a vigil, then 24/7. For the most part, the dying inmates have someone with them all the time; no one dies alone. I mean, that is a luxury that most of us outside this prison won’t have.

It’s truly exceptional to see these older–sometimes huge–men sitting at the bedside of a dying inmate, reading or feeding them ice cream. The guys stay the entire time, and once the patient passes, they bathe and dress them for the morgue. Sometimes we even cry together.

Last year, I think we had fifteen deaths, and the average age was fifty-one. The majority of our hospice patients die from cancer. In terms of our volunteers, most are lifers, and many of them came here at a young age, so they know they’ll probably wind up here at some point. A lot of them say that coming here to help the dying is a calling. They just felt like they needed to contribute something.

This job is emotionally draining, but very rewarding. I go home at night knowing I made an impact on someone’s life. I feel blessed to be in this program.

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Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones is an internationally-recognized photojournalist and an award-winning filmmaker. Learn more about Jones and The American Nurse Project at: http://www.americannurseproject.com
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