Lament of the Non-Nurse

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Healthcare is all about nursing. I understand this. With 77% of non-physician roles in U.S. healthcare being those of the nursing variety, I can understand. They are the backbone of our hospitals. I am not a nurse. I had the option years ago, and I decided that, with poop being my Kryptonite and all, it would not be a wise career choice for me. I opted, instead, to help people breathe for a living. Thus I became the respiratory therapist. That choice has come back to haunt me in several ways.

The first of these started when I wanted somewhere to go from here. Nurses have so many avenues they can take to do this: become an instructor, a case manager, management at their facility, become an NP. What can the respiratory therapist do? Well, aside from becoming a Registered Respiratory Therapist from the entry-level Certified Respiratory Therapist, which I did the month after I graduated from respiratory school, there is nothing. Bachelors programs in respiratory are just starting to emerge, but a BS in respiratory gets us no more job perks, no more pay. You just get to say you have it. The majority of my bachelors-having coworkers got theirs in “health sciences”. Whatever that means. So instead, I opted to finish my BS in business administration with the added concentration of healthcare management. But then what? If there are only a handful of BS programs, there certainly are no masters programs. But my BS is in business anyway, so the MBA was a no-brainer.

So here I am. I am one of the more educated in my department, even in the hospital. My MBA is complete. I did well. I did it. So now what? Now I find a job.

I thought this part would be easy. Well, not really easy, but not this difficult, either. Let’s discuss my situation: I have spent the past eight years of my life working in the toughest in my field–adult critical care, and eventually NICU. To the layperson, let me explain further: I am a member of a critical care team who responds the emergencies in the hospital. We are called in when you or your loved one is at their sickest. We bring our skills, experience, and knowledge to you, make recommendations to the physician based on all of the above. We communicate with other members of the team, with family members, with patients. We assess and decide, then act. Repeat as often as necessary to the point that it is second nature to us.

So what does this tell you about me? Well, it tells you I can effectively communicate with anyone. I have non-English-speaking patients, when I am most certainly unilingual. I have deaf patients, blind patients, patients who are intubated and cannot talk, trached and cannot talk. My job is to find out what is going on with them rapidly enough to act. I have become, over the years, a master lip-reader. But that’s not all. The people with whom I interact each and every day have been anyone from a PhD-holding professor who was ill, down to a man whose education was limited to elementary school before he was put to work out in his family’s fields. On our professional team, we have everyone from housekeepers and registration clerks, who may only have a high school education, all the way up to senior management and physicians with advanced degrees. I. Can. Effectively. Communicate. With . Anyone.

Now for my work. It may involve looking at lab values that seem to others to have nothing to do with the lungs, but actually do. Watching vitals. Seeing how the patient breathes. Assessing vital signs. Looking at patient history to see what clues I can find. Listening to family members who may not speak the same lingo I speak. Look at x-rays, watch for clues. And I look at all of this, and since the physician is not there, I have to decide when we need to be concerned, when to call for more help, what I can do to help. So in a split-second, I have to take in this information from multiple sources–complex information at that, compare it to the knowledge stored in my brain, and formulate a plan on how best to proceed.

And under stress. The patient is either having trouble breathing, or even has stopped breathing, when I have to do all of this. Maybe their heart has stopped. Maybe their oxygen saturation is low. Regardless, I don’t often have the luxury of being able to take my time. I need to make a decision and act now, now, now. And while nurses have anywhere from 2 to 6 patients to care for, when I go into work, I have the respiratory histories of at least a few floors’ worth of patients in the back of my mind or in notes in the margins of my printed work assignment. If you figure the average respiratory rate is 10-20 breaths per minute, and there are usually 30 patients per unit, that it 36,000 breaths for which I am responsible in one hour of work on just one floor of the hospital. And I May have three or four floors. That’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of stress.

And I have done this for years of my life.

And then I got an MBA. So I understand finance and strategy, management and business law, marketing and accounting. I have been educated thoroughly in all of the above from a nationally-ranked program at a well-respected university. Add that to the ability to communicate with anyone, the ability to work under stress, the ability to extract complex information from multiple sources to formulate a plan….Nothing should stop me, right?

Wrong.

Because I am looking through these jobs, and seeing that many of the leadership opportunities are asking for someone with a nursing background. Why? No idea. We respiratory therapists go everywhere. A nurse may be hired to work in one specific unit. I can go anywhere in a single night, giving me intimate knowledge of the work flow of every patient care area of the facility, from behavioral health up to the ICUs. And I know healthcare. And I know business. At first, I noticed this trend, and I was a little discouraged, but I figured that I would find the right role  But today, I came across a posting for a pulmonary unit. They need a director. Perfect. Except, as I scrolled down reading the job posting, toward the end, it listed a RN as one of the qualifications. They want someone with my clinical experience, an MBA….and a RN.

It is what we all deal with everyday–we non-nursing patient care staff. We are skilled, we are experienced, we are valuable to patient outcomes, but this is the hand we are dealt, and frankly, it sucks. Part of me wants to just go to nursing school for a couple of years so I can say I did. But I shouldn’t have to do this. I have worked hard. I have done well, completing all three degrees with academic honors. I have the experience under my belt. This is just ridiculous.

Nursing is the backbone of healthcare, but I have yet to see a backbone accomplish anything without limbs, without muscle to hold it upright, support it and ensure it can move and flex in the ways needed. And it’s high time that the rest of the body gets some respect.

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