They thought their day was over. So over, in fact, that nurse Sharon Rockwell pulled her Dansko shoes off and rested her aching feet on the floor of the Bainbridge Island ferry galley. Colleague Annie Braddock, getting married in a week and tolerating her last crowded Friday commute before a vacation, sat across from her.
Fate wouldn’t have it.
Before the day was truly done, they would save a man’s life. Rockwell, an infusion nurse who specializes
in fluids via injection, and Braddock, who preps patients for diagnostic procedures and in the ER, were familiar with medical emergencies. Responding to one in the field was something entirely different.
Sure, stepping in when a scream for help sliced through the chatter was automatic. A quick “Let’s go” from Rockwell and they ran—sock-clad feet and all. Assessing the situation was instinctual. A body slumping to the side, a face turning a mottled shade of blue, and a nonexistent pulse meant cardiac arrest. Delivering care was second nature. In moments, Braddock pumped on the man’s chest while Rockwell slapped on pads from an automated defibrillator. A couple rounds of CPR and a 200-plus-joule shock later, he came up swinging. As he struggled with his arms and color surfaced in his face, they gave him some room, if only for a moment.
What was different was the uncertainty—and nerves—that came from being outside the job. In the ER, Braddock can prepare, put up emotional walls, and be confident in a well-oiled process. Not this time. “This is as real as it gets,” she says. The survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, after all, is only about 10 percent. They pined for the IVs and equipment they would’ve had at work, and neither was immune to the hours of adrenaline shakes that immediately followed the rescue and the subsequent weeks of wondering if the man was okay.
Still, they couldn’t understand all the fuss when word got around. “It’s all in a day’s work,” Rockwell says.
Months later, she saw a familiar-looking man on the ferry. He hugged Rockwell and whispered in her ear, “What do you say to thank someone who saved your life?” —Rianna Hidalgo
When Jessie Edwards first entered Plymouth supportive housing in Belltown, she was homeless and had recently suffered a stroke that affected her motor skills. “I couldn’t walk, but I could smoke crack,” she says of her first memories spent in her room “just really going through it.”
But she wasn’t alone. She kept finding notes on her door. “Come visit with me,” someone wrote. The missives were open invitations, not to convince Edwards to get sober or find Jesus, just a safe space to talk to someone who could find Edwards help once she was ready.
“When you become clean, you want to come out of that mean, cruel world,” she says. “You’re searching for little signs in people that say, ‘Okay this person really cares about me.’ ” For Edwards, that person was Cat Jobes.
A nurse of 18 years, the last four at the 95-unit apartment building for seniors looking to get off the streets, Jobes says the most important thing she offers her patients is time. “I think the thing that makes the most difference in my life as a nurse in this building is that I get to talk to people who others don’t talk to.” Jobes orders tests, gives advice, and helps make referrals. But mainly she acts as a bridge between the disenfranchised and the intimidating world of modern health care.
Sometimes this means waiting years for a tenant to ask a health question, then accompanying him to his first doctor’s appointment in decades. Or it’s helping a tenant put together a new daily exercise routine.
With Edwards, now four years sober, it meant having someone she could go to for a smile and a hug. “And it’s mutual. When I’ve had bad days, Jessie just gives back to me,” says Jobes.
“A lot of people who have been homeless, their trust in the world really diminishes. My job is to make them feel part of the world again.” —Darren Davis
Last summer, nurse Justin Yoshimoto sat with the 12-year-old son of a patient whose heart had stopped. Yoshimoto and the critical care team at UW Medicine’s Valley Medical Center had restarted the thirty-something’s heart earlier in the evening.
Yoshimoto knew it would stop again.
He called the patient’s wife. And she, their son, and the child’s uncle arrived. The patient had been at the center for weeks; the family had struggled with how to break the increasingly bad news to the son.
Yoshimoto sat him down. “Your dad is very sick,” he recalls saying, “and I don’t think he’s going to get better.”
Sure, Yoshimoto had delivered heart-wrenching news before. He’s been at Valley since 2012. But this one brought him to tears. “It was the first time I had to explain to a child that his dad was going to die,” he says. “It was awful.”
He sat at the boy’s side—answering questions, encouraging him to talk to his father—and stayed past the end of his shift, until the patient passed away.
“If you had a loved one needing critical care,” nurse manager Deborah Dullenty says of Yoshimoto, winner of a DAISY award for excellence in nursing, “you would find comfort in knowing that he was caring for them.”
“It’s a cliche,” Yoshimoto says of his work, “but it is a calling.” —Kate Gibbons
When Melinda O’Malley isn’t at Harborview Medical Center, where she’s been a nurse for 23 years, she is likely in her Shoreline pottery studio, a 12-foot-by-eight-foot garden shed turned art sanctuary. She sits there in her backyard, looking out the window at a cherry tree, crafting statues of dragons with jutting scales and friendly faces.
It was there that she first heard about the Oso mudslide. It was something distant—a headline piped in by voices on KUOW. When she came into work the next week it became real: Survivor Amanda Skorjanc was in room 644 with three broken limbs, a shattered ankle, a wounded hip, and a fractured eye socket.
O’Malley is one of the more experienced trauma nurses in the planned surgery unit on the sixth floor. She’s seen plenty of patients who’ve been through horrors (think reattached severed hands), and Skorjanc’s injuries were not the worst she’d witnessed. But the magnitude of this—43 dead, one of the deadliest mudslides in U.S. history—she felt. As she inspected wounds, managed pain, and updated family members, she knew Skorjanc’s neighborhood was gone, her home destroyed, and many of her neighbors dead.
Nurse manager Hazel Boniog says O’Malley is an advocate for patients; someone with a knack for understanding not just what patients say, but what they’re trying to say. When Skorjanc shared her experience—not all patients do—O’Malley listened, knowing that talking can help healing. She learned that during the slide Skorjanc clung to her five-month-old son, Duke, as if it were her only purpose in life, that the mother and child were swept hundreds of feet by mud and debris.
Witnessing the 25-year-old, one of the most resilient patients she’d ever cared for, improve, even joking and laughing along the way, was inspiring. She savored the knowledge that Skorjanc was reunited with Duke after his stay at Seattle Children’s. And when Skorjanc came back for more treatment a couple weeks later, O’Malley witnessed a marriage proposal. As Skorjanc came wheeling out with a ring on her finger, O’Malley couldn’t help but squeal. —RH
Marianne Sterling’s temp job has lasted more than three decades.
In 1978, as Sterling attended her final nursing classes at UW, oncologist Peter Wasserman’s wife, who assisted with his practice, went into premature labor. “I was just going to help out,” Sterling recalls. “To fill in while his wife was out.”
She never stopped.
For 28 years she worked alongside Wasserman, caring for thousands of cancer patients, some through more than one bout of the disease and over multiple decades. “We were just the best of friends,” she says of a patient she treated once in her early nursing days and again when the patient was diagnosed with other types of cancer. “She was even at the hospital when I had my kids.” Sterling’s warmth has charmed legions of others, including a man who dressed in costumes for treatments and made her a picture book of his ensembles that she now happily shares.
“After Dr. Wasserman retired,” explains Mary Lou Walther, the Polyclinic’s director of practice management, “[his patients] remained our patients because they still wanted Marianne as their nurse.”
Today Sterling is the supervising RN of the clinic, overseeing around 20 patients daily. “You fall in love with your patients,” she says. “You hope with them, and fight with them, and the outcomes are not always what you want them to be.” Her eyes well at the thought of patients who’ve lost their battles. She admits she takes grief home with her sometimes. But she can’t imagine another career. —KG
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.