Nurses, those indispensable purveyors of medicine, attention and solace, work long shifts during which the stress of managing mortality is part of the job description.
And they love it.
“It’s the most noble, the most trusted profession. That’s a fact. People trust their lives to us. I have never taken that lightly,” said Ty Jones, who works at Payson Regional Medical Center.
Ty and his wife, Sharleen, have worked as nurses for 13 years, in eventful careers that have earned them several awards.
Nurses have crazy schedules — they work 12-hour shifts, which often turn into 13- or 14-hour shifts, according to Dr. Roni DeLaO Kerns, who teaches nursing at Gila Community College.
Ty and Sharleen each understand the job’s tribulations — the stress of delivering correct medications, performing the right procedures and dealing with the emotions of the ill.
Ty works as a medical surgical and telemetry nurse, which involves cardiac care, although he considered becoming a paramedic.
“If you like waiting for the action, become a paramedic,” his friends told him. If he wanted action all around him, his friends advised him to become a nurse.
Sharleen, who contemplated medical school, works in intensive care. She decided to instead become a nurse for two reasons.
First, Sharleen says she’s very detail oriented — a crucial quality in a nurse.
Second, nurses become more intensely involved with their patents than do doctors because of the amount of time they spend with the patients. As a result, nurses are a doctor’s “eyes and ears,” the Joneses say.
“Physicians don’t spend as much time with their patients as a nurse does,” Ty said.
Because of medical privacy laws, the couple can’t discuss specific patients, which precludes them from talking about the intricacies of their day.
And while separating oneself from work is imperative — albeit difficult — venting is similarly necessary.
“You can’t be a nurse and take the work home with you,” said Ty.
Sharleen says she uses the trip home in the car to vent. At home, the couple doesn’t talk about work.
“There’s a lot of take,” said Ty. “At the end of the day, you’re many times emotionally drained.”
Still, perhaps the implicit understanding of what each other’s day entails helps mitigate stress.
Sharleen exercises to unwind. Ty enjoys woodworking. The couple also have two children.
Kerns said roughly half of entering nurses quit the profession in two years.
“I’ve been a nurse since Florence Nightingale,” Kerns joked. She specializes in teaching rural nurses — who must be all-around Renaissance nurses. “They need to be able to do a little bit of everything,” she said.
Ty agreed. “We do pediatric to geriatric every single day.”
The student nurses interviewed for this article enjoyed that variety, and said the constant change and the adrenaline rush of a challenging case is what drives them to complete the rigorous nursing curriculum, which involves learning anatomy, psychology and the intricacies of cleaning dressings.
“At the hospital, you can try and have a timeline,” said Erica Overton. But emergencies relegate plans to the trashcan.
Gila Community College’s Senior Dean Stephen Cullen has repeatedly called the school’s nursing program its “banner program.”
In Payson, the first nursing class of six graduated the spring of 2007. And this semester, all four one-semester blocks are running concurrently. That means that two classes of six students can graduate each year.
Kerns carefully differentiated between a doctor’s role and a nurse’s. Nurses, she said, focus on wellness, whereas doctors aim to cure illness.
“We take care of the whole patient. It’s not just their physical body,” she said. “If you’ve fixed the body, but you haven’t fixed the spirit, you’ve lost the patient.”
When all hope of a cure has evaporated for a patient, a nurse helps him manage pain and live life as fully as possible in the last days or months.
A nurse will also help the patient’s family start the grieving process, said Ty. “Whatever they need.”
A nurse’s day begins with getting patient reports from the nurses coming off shift. They take each patient’s vital signs, note which medications patients will need and determine which procedures will be necessary through that day’s or evening’s shift.
Nurses determine a plan of care to establish desired outcomes. If the outcome differs from original intentions, a nurse changes the plan of care.
Establishing the plan of care has made nursing a “real profession,” said Ty. “Nurses used to just basically make beds and empty bedpans,” he said.
Still, nurses are not doctors and they cannot prescribe medicine, among other things. A nurse might discover a patient’s potassium levels are high. But it’s up to the doctor to recommend treatment to decrease the level.
By contrast, a nurse’s care plan will establish ways to prevent physical problems like dehydration, not necessarily directly related to the illness itself.
“There is no bigger compliment to a nurse than when a doctor comes up and says ‘What do you think?’” said Ty.
The future of nursing will likely take greater advantage of technology, the Joneses said. Turning medical records electronic has received national attention for its potential cost savings.
Ty said in case of natural disaster — Hurricane Katrina, for instance — thousands of people can lose their medical records. Electronic records could prevent that.
Remote nursing, which involves nurses and patients visiting via television, also has potential to improve care — especially in rural areas like Rim Country, Ty continued.
An already chronic shortage of nurses in the United States is expected to worsen as baby boomers age. Shortages of hospital space could accompany the shortage of both nurses and nursing instructors. One local nursing student noted that the two-year wait to get into a Maricopa County nursing program inspired him to enroll in the program at Gila Community College.
“It’s a hard profession,” Sharleen acknowledges.
But both she and her husband note the field’s intense rewards.
“There are very few professions,” Ty said, where “at the end of the day you’ll have changed someone’s life for the better.”
Kerns said, “If you save someone, you’re called a hero. If you save 1,000 lives, you’re a nurse.”