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Interview with an ER Nurse

Joan Russet has a key chain that reads: “ER: You watch it. We live it.” Seven years ago, Russet quit her cubicle-bound administrator job to become an ER nurse. Tired of watching life go by, she decided to live her dream of helping those in need. A cool customer with a talent for getting the job done, she was a perfect candidate for the high-stakes environment of the hospital Emergency Room.

But first, Russet had to build the training and credentials to qualify for the position. As the personal assistant to a medical research director, Russet was already at the sidelines of medical care. A nursing degree took her into the heart of the profession.

Recently, Russet took a moment to describe her journey from office cubicle to the frontlines of medical care.

You worked at a medical research facility before nursing school. What did you do there?
I was the assistant to the Director of Medical Research. I scheduled appointments, took care of correspondence, coordinated some grant-writing projects, made phone calls, things like that.

Why did you decide to leave the job and go back to school?
I had worked at the research institute for four years, and was ready for a change. I was good at what I did–I’m organized and focused–but I felt like I was capable of a lot more. I’ve been interested in medicine for a long time. When I came to [the research institute], I thought that working in a lab environment would bring me closer to that interest. But I wasn’t working with patients or doing research. I was supporting scientists who were performing research that would someday help patients.

So you wanted to go from supporting actor to lead?
Exactly. Well, working with people was most important to me. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

How did you decide on nursing? Why not, say, medical research?
A couple of reasons. First, I knew I wanted to deal with people directly. I didn’t want to just work behind the scenes for a good cause (such as stem cell research, which is what the scientists at the [research institute] were doing). I wanted to provide medical care for people who needed it. Also I wanted variety. My office job was hectic and boring at the same time. I liked the idea of having a different challenge every day–new patients. That’s actually why the ER appeals to me. It’s definitely not boring.

I can imagine!
Also I had developed a lot of respect for nurses when I was a patient. I was diagnosed with leukemia in my early twenties, and the nurses were my lifeline during the treatment. They informed me of all my options–including alternative treatments–and were very supportive. I still keep in touch with some of them.

How did going back to school figure into your plans to become a nurse?
To obtain an Registered Nurse (RN) license, you need a diploma or a college degree–associate’s or bachelor’s–from a nursing school. I already had a bachelor’s degree in another field, Zoology, so I was eligible for an accelerated program.

Did you go straight into nursing school then?
Actually, no. Once I looked into nursing programs, I found out that I needed to satisfy some science prerequisites before I applied. I took night classes at [the local community college] while I was still working.

Describe the nursing program.
It was intensive. I went to school full time for a year and a half. After I got my nursing diploma I took the N-CLEX, the state licensing exam, and became an RN.

Was it hard to find a job?
Not at all. Nurses are in huge demand, especially in California. I was offered an attractive bonus package in exchange for a three-year commitment to the hospital. I was even able to work toward my master’s degree while I did clinical rotations. After a year I completed my Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Public Health Nursing (PHN) certificate.

What do you like about your job now, as an ER nurse?
The ER is a good place for me–I like the variety and the fast pace. You really have to think on your feet and be focused. In a sense it’s like my admin job at the research center. [The director] always had so many projects going on at once, and it was my job to prioritize and make sure everything got done. Of course in critical care, the stakes are much higher. Here I’m prioritizing and multitasking to save lives.

What is your primary role as an ER nurse?

My job is to stabilize the patient’s condition. This might be drawing blood, administering medication or tests, placing an IV or a catheter. I usually have four patients to look after, which is the legal limit in a hospital ER. Sometimes I triage incoming patients, assessing the severity of their condition and coordinating care.

Is it like the TV show ER?
Not quite as dramatic. It can be slow sometimes. And we do tend to see a lot of conditions that wouldn’t make for exciting TV, such as minor scrapes and bruises.

How does your life now compare to your life seven years ago, at the stem cell research center?
A lot more fulfilling. Nursing school was a challenge but I’m so glad I did it. I knew I was capable of more than scheduling appointments and organizing grant applications. I feel like the ER lets me make the most of my skills. The people I care for are those that need me the most–it’s a great feeling to see a patient recover from a crisis.

Sometimes all that stands between you and your dreams is an education. A nursing degree took Joan from supporting actress to starring role in her career. Whether you’re dreaming of more challenge, more excitement, or more money, going back to school can help you take charge of your career. After all, it’s your life: don’t just watch it. Live it.


Publish date: June 29, 2008