Nurses Share the Emotional Ups and Downs of the Emergency Department

January 7, 2011


Becky Abbott, RN, of New Haven, prepares an

IV for a patient in the Emergency Department

at Mercy Hospital Washington.

Each day, nurses in the emergency department at Mercy Hospital Washington come to work not quite knowing what kind of day it’s going to be – except that someone’s life could be hanging in the balance.

What motivates the men and women of the emergency department is a desire to care for others. Often, that desire is shaped by some kind of family connection, as is the case with emergency department nurse Becky Abbott of New Haven. “My mom was a nurse and my first supervisor. My dad was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician),” Abbott said. “My dad said ‘Take care of people like you would take care of us’ and that’s what I try to do.”

The emergency department sees about 33,000 patients each year. The majority of patients enter the building with abdominal, chest or dental pain, or injuries from falls, vehicular accidents and farm-related mishaps. Patient medical conditions are anywhere from minor to critical, and the emotional highs and lows run the gamut right along with those conditions.

“We see people at their weakest moments, their worst moments, and that goes for our patients as well as their loved ones,” said emergency department nurse Kristie Johnson of Washington. “The greatest thing about being a nurse is knowing we’ve helped people feel better. Medicine often does that, but medicine combined with someone’s hand to hold and someone to say ‘It’s going to be all right’ does much more to help than you can ever imagine.”

On a busy day in the emergency department, nurses do a lot of running from patient to nurses’ station, supply closet, X-ray and back again. Abbott said, “There are days when you don’t get breaks, and breaks don’t really cross your mind because you’re on the go and other people are depending on you.”

Both women knew early on that they wanted to be nurses. Johnson was inspired at the age of 9, when her grandmother died of cancer. She knew when she grew up she wanted to help people. Her first experience as an emergency department nurse was at a hospital in California where many injuries were violence-related. Johnson made her way to the emergency department at Mercy Hospital Washington in 2005.

“The worst moment for medical professionals is when there is nothing medically that can be done for a patient, and there are those times,” Johnson said. “Those are the days you go home and instead of being upset that the house is dirty, or something else isn’t done, you’re thankful your family is healthy and safe at home. But at work, in the moment, even though you want to, you can’t fall apart.”

Abbott agreed. She said, “You have to keep it together for the next patient. You have to walk into the room and focus on the next patient, because that patient needs 100 percent from you.”

Abbott worked in other areas of the hospital since she came to Mercy in 1999. After several years, “I wanted a change of pace and a different group of patients and illnesses to treat,” she said, adding that she found the challenges she was looking for in the emergency department. “My patients teach me something every day about being a better nurse.”

The emergency department is a 62-person staff led by Emergency Department Director Bret Riegel, MD, and Manager Randy Graham, RN, BSN. Emergency Department nurses are specially trained in trauma care before they come to the emergency department, and they receive continuous education.

Apart from their training, emergency department nurses seem to have similar characteristics. “Nurses who come to the Emergency Department have an interest in being here because they move fast and make quick and accurate decisions,” said Graham. “The nurses here are all self-motivated and can change gears quickly.”

Graham said being able to “change gears” is necessary not just because of the variety of illnesses and injuries, but also because, “We have moments when we go from quiet to sudden crowds.”

Most days are good days in the Emergency Department for the nurses, and even for patients, although it may not seem like it at the time.

“This isn’t someone’s favorite place to be. Most people try to avoid it, really, but when you look at the whole picture, this is definitely the place you want to be when you’re not feeling well,” Graham said. “We stabilize, discharge and save a lot lives. More people leave in much better shape than when they got here, which makes it a good day for them and a good day for us.”

Johnson added, “We help a lot of people, so you could say we have a lot of good days.”

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