Sandra Lee, MSN, RN, CCRN, is a Pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Here is her personal reflection on her journey to becoming a nurse.
During this pandemic, I’ve found it helpful to take a minute and be mindful of where I am and how I got here. Like many of my nurse colleagues, I took the scenic route to get where I am today. Contemplating my journey gives even more meaning to the work I do now.
I never planned to become a nurse. When my father proposed nursing school, I flatly rejected it. I couldn’t go to the local community college for nursing. Not when my school cohort at a specialty math/science program was posting every university acceptance in the Magnet program office.
To be fair, I had no idea what nurses did. My childhood image of nurses was a double-edged sword. Either they were attractive young women in tight white dresses, or they were stern and unattractive older nuns. All wore nursing caps. I could never have imagined my current collaborative environment.
The media image of nurses started to evolve in the ‘90s. The TV show “ER” was the first to highlight nurses as complex characters, interacting in human ways with patients and physician colleagues. These nurses weren’t simply “Yes doctor” droids. The nurses boldly treated patients, and voiced their expertise even when they conflicted with physicians.
However, I never would have become a nurse, if I hadn’t become terribly ill. I had always been healthy: no broken bones, surgeries or hospital admissions. Then, in college I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent (type I) diabetes. I had spent weeks experiencing the classic symptoms and was admitted to the ICU with a raging case of diabetic ketoacidosis. I didn’t know anything about diabetes and was heartbroken. As I drove myself to the hospital, I stopped at McDonald’s for a filet-o-fish combo with a chocolate shake. I thought my life was over.
I was in the ICU for several days, as the nurses worked to normalize my blood sugars, acidosis, electrolyte levels and hydration status. They were incredibly kind, supportive, caring and knowledgeable. They taught me in manageable morsels about what living with diabetes meant and how I could manage it.
Diabetes changed my educational and career path. As a person with a preexisting condition, it would be prohibitively expensive to purchase health insurance: I needed to be readily employable throughout my lifetime. Already a biology major, nursing combined my affinity for science and my desire to work compassionately with and for people. I completed my degree and moved home to attend … yes … the local community college.
In retrospect, I was lucky. I got into the local nursing program on the first try, even with the lottery system. My parents had a large-enough home and the financial resources to welcome me back. Although my health insurance expired when I graduated university, I had access through the county program. I dealt with a few major complications of diabetes during this time, but without lasting effects.
As a new graduate nurse, I had unreasonable expectations of what my first job would look like. After several months of disappointments, I adjusted my views and got my first job as a night-shift pediatric ICU nurse at a community hospital. A few years later, I made the jump to a top-rated, dedicated children’s hospital, where I’ve been for the past two decades.
Although I entered the nursing field as an ADN, I returned to school part-time to earn my BSN, as well as an MSN in nursing administration. I was fortunate that work paid for the majority of my tuition.
Throughout my career, I have worked in hospitals, which offer shifts 24/7 and consistent health insurance benefits. When I made the jump to my current hospital, there was an extreme nursing shortage. This shortage is ongoing, partly because nurses these days have so many options. There are almost as many niches as there are types of people.
I love my job because I get to support children and their families at some of the best times (definitive fix surgeries such as kidney transplants, finding the right diagnosis and treatment after previous disappointments) and worst times (traumatic injury, septic cancer, nonaccidental trauma, acute respiratory distress syndrome) of their lives. I get to use my brains and my heart, with measured doses of ICU adrenaline. I am thriving in a collaborative environment where we support and inspire each other. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to get the second COVID-19 this month.
Then again, PICU nursing is physically and emotionally challenging. Due to HIPAA, I debrief mostly with co-workers. Many people outside the field don’t understand what I do, although I’m trying to share my experiences so that friends can better understand how actions impact our public health. I’m trying to keep fit in all dimensions and am also thinking about aging and pondering next steps.
Although I took the scenic road during my nursing career, I’m not done yet. In the past three years, I’ve presented posters at institutional, local and national nursing conferences and have been the primary facilitator for a presentation at NTI. I wish I had started earlier, but I’ve started now and plan to do much more.
During this difficult period, I’d encourage everyone to take a minute to be mindful, especially of our young folk. It’s OK to take the scenic route. One of the benefits of being involved in organizations apart from work (such as church, community groups and hobby enthusiasts) is that you are exposed to people from a variety of fields. Talk to them. Ask questions. Explore your options. Once you find your niche, prepare and pursue it with passion. You will be All In.