For Louise Walsh, Director of Nursing at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, Calif., nursing has always been at the center of her life. For this mother of two daughters, the ethical, moral and legal responsibilities of the profession have been foremost on her mind since her first job as a long-term care facility nursing assistant in 1974. Earning her RN degree in 1980, Walsh embarked on a life filled with the joys and sorrows that come with caring for the ill. She has worked in oncology units and spent nine years in the ICU at Northridge Hospital in Northridge, Calif., dealing with matters of life and death on a daily basis.
Yet it took a near-death experience for Walsh to gain a full appreciation of the true nature of her calling. In 1998, she was diagnosed with polycystic liver disease, and found herself wearing the same beeper she had seen on patients in the ICU. Her experiences as a patient and the treatment she received post-op allowed her to see nursing “from the other side of the bed rail,” as she puts it. “That gave me a greater sensitivity toward anybody who’s in a vulnerable health condition.” In a voice tinged with emotion, she recalls one particular night in 1999. “They were transporting a patient who had just suffered brain death to the operating room to procure the organs.” At that moment, the enormity of the situation hit home, and she remembers “going off to a private place and crying my eyes out.”
Doctors had difficulty finding a suitable liver for Walsh, and she ended up hospitalized at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she waited three excruciating weeks until an eleventh-hour transplant was arranged. It was during her post-operational convalescence that Walsh really got a taste of how patients view their own healthcare. Simple things, which she admits she herself did as a nurse, became aggravations as she lay in recovery. “One thing that really made me furious was the way hospital employees would walk by, pop their head in my room and toss old gloves or empty coffee cups into my trash can. I still get pissed when I think about it…my whole world had shrunk to that little cubicle, and I felt like that was my trash can! To this day, I respect the patients’ space.”
Other transgressions were more serious. She recalls the intense pain she felt when having a drain removed, and the dread she felt when the time came to remove another one. The bedside manner of the doctor and nurse left her cold. “They basically ignored me, talking about his weekend and other trivial stuff,” recalling that even as she cried in pain, they never once looked at her or asked if there was anything they could do to make her more comfortable. “I had fallen into that mindset where ‘you have to be a good patient,’ so I didn’t say anything. It was extremely impersonal and rude. I thought about how many times I had been in a patient’s room involved in personal chatter—so that experience really brought that home to me.”
It has been more than eight years since the transplant, and other than having to closely monitor her immune system, there is little outward sign of what Walsh went through. Today she is more physically active than ever, an avid hiker and jogger who participates in long-distance runs. Like all good teachers, she is able to synthesize her own life lessons into her work. “I’ve shared these personal examples as a staff developer, during training sessions,” she explains with a smile. “It really seems to raise the level of interest. I guess no matter how long you’ve been involved in this kind of work, you can never, ever overestimate the importance of compassion.”