Serving Their Country and Their Patients

Nov 01, 2018

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When somebody's hurt and looking up from that bed, they do not care whether you're Army, Navy or Air Force. They just care that you are really good at your job.

Randy Derr

With football season firmly in progress, loyalties within a family or household may be divided. For Randy Derr and Bambi Pish-Derr, that is especially the case. Randy has been with the U.S. Army for 32 years and is a major in the Army Nurse Corps, United States Army Reserve. Bambi serves in the U.S. Navy as reserve specialty leader-Critical Care Department head, N7-EMF Dallas One. Despite their separate allegiances, they make their relationship work. In honor of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, we spoke with them about serving their country, caring for their compatriots, attending AACN’s National Teaching Institute (NTI) as service members — and why Army can’t beat Navy in football.

What lessons from your military service can you offer critical care nurses to help them in their civilian roles?

Randy: I think the greatest opportunity in the military versus civilian is a huge potential to do things that are outside your comfort bubble. On the civilian side, we get to choose whether we leave our comfort bubble, but on the military side, you’re pushed into places that are outside your comfort bubble. I think that helps us grow, because you have to stretch to grow, right? I’m an ICU nurse, and I’ve never done medical-surgical nursing at all. The last time was in nursing school, and I found myself on the PCCU for a month and on the medical-surgical wards a couple of times. These nurses were looking at me as an expert, and I had to tell them I’m not.

So, you really have to be able to step outside your comfort bubble, ask for help when you need it, not be afraid of asking for that help — and leadership is a whole different thing too. On the civilian side, you can choose to take a leadership path. At some point in your military career, almost from the beginning as an officer, you will be a leader. So, if you’re afraid of that, then you’re going to have to very quickly decide what leadership style you want and how you want to proceed, because it’s not an option in the military. You’ll be in charge.

Bambi: I think just learning to work together as a team. I find that the military is really great at working together as a team. Once you’re at the bedside, it doesn’t matter if you’re civilian, if you’re Army, if you’re Navy, if you’re Air Force. What matters is the team and the patient. And I think that sometimes, we get really sort of into ourselves and who we belong to, and we forget that the ED nurse can be our friend and help us, or a nurse from another community hospital is a critical care nurse, much as ourselves. And I think with the military, the one thing I can drive home is teamwork, 100 percent of the time.

What advice would you offer nurses considering a career in the military?

Randy: For me, this is incredibly easy. If the question is “I’m thinking about joining the military,” my advice would be, “Do it.” Everything good in my life stems from my 32 years in the United States Army. I’ve had an opportunity to go places I would’ve never been. I’ve had an opportunity to deal with populations we don’t like dealing with on the civilian side. There’s just nothing more satisfying than taking care of these people. So, if there is a desire to do it, and I would hope a lot of us would, then the advice is to go do it.

Be flexible because, as I said, you never know where you’re going to work. You might think you’re going to be working in an ICU, and then you’re working in a stepdown unit, but you’re going to adjust to that location and do your absolute best. Although I’ve been in the Army for 32 years, when people come to me with this question, and they do frequently, I tell them to look at all three services. I’m a firm believer that the military medical community is the prime example across all services of what we call a purple concept, mixing of the forces. When some- body’s hurt and looking up from that bed, they do not care whether you’re Army, Navy or Air Force. They just care that you are really good at your job.

Bambi: I think the best advice I can offer someone is to be flexible and to be willing to kind of push beyond your boundaries and do things that you haven’t done in your past. I believe of all the things that I’ve accomplished in the military, that would be the thing I’m most proud of, doing things that I never dreamed that I would do, going places that I never dreamed I would go, and just learning how to be open to those new opportunities.

What’s the most frequently asked question from civilian nurses about military nursing?

Randy: The thing about the military is it’s absolutely its own culture. One half of 1 percent of the United States understands the culture, understands the words, understands the uniform, understands how this organization works. So, it really is just a matter of, “Tell me about a typical day in the military.” You walk them through that and they’re shocked, because you could be working in a stateside medical center one day and working out of a tent the next day, or off the back of a pickup truck the next. So, it really is getting people acquainted with that culture and all the possibilities that are inherent in that culture.

Bambi: They have an opinion that it’s so very different from what we actually do. And though we are oftentimes in different and austere positions, it’s really nursing. Sometimes we’re wearing a uniform with pins and ribbons. And a lot of times, we’re just wearing scrubs, and you just can’t tell us from a civilian nurse. If I walked by you in a hospital and you were wearing the same scrubs, you wouldn’t know what I did day in, day out. So I think that’s what I would have to say. We’re all the same.

What do you, as a military nurse, find most valuable about NTI?

Randy: The diversity. Critical care nursing is so diverse now. It’s not like you can just be a good ICU nurse. You have to decide what kind of ICU you want to work in. And we get pigeonholed. So, when we come to NTI, the breadth of things that are offered allow us to step outside our comfort bubble. I don’t know anything about neuro nursing, so I can go to neuro stuff and become more comfortable with that. I have a really good friend, and she’s an amazing heart nurse. She is absolutely excellent at that, but she will admit that she’s not good at neuro. So, she’s put herself in positions where she’s going to get neuro education, because she works at a level one trauma center.

So, NTI is extremely valuable to critical care nursing, because it allows us to learn about things that we otherwise would not have an opportunity to learn about, and that’s what I love about it. This is our third out of four years, and we will keep coming back simply because we will always have that opportunity to learn about things that we’re not comfortable with.

Bambi: I think what I found most valuable from NTI, especially in my military career, is the camaraderie and friendship. I love the training. I’ve been many times and in uniform. It’s been really interesting to watch how many people have come up and said, “Thank you for your service. Can you tell us about what you’ve done?” and just share their experiences. I had a gentleman, probably old enough to be at least my father, maybe my grandfather, come up and talk to me about his father, who was a World War II Mustang flyer. It was really awesome. Just being there and having an opportunity to hear other people’s stories and where their lives have come full circle and then back to NTI — it’s been awesome for me.

Knowing the rivalry between Army and Navy, you’re married to an Army major. How is the Army-Navy game at your home?

Bambi: Ah. Army-Navy game at my home. There is an ongoing rivalry about which service is better. We don’t watch the game, ever. It allows us to have a military camaraderie and a reasonable relationship. However, we all know in our home that Navy is better, because I outrank him. Besides, Army’s only won once in the last 17 years. So we have to give them a win every once in a while.