April 26, 2010
Balancing act: Inside the life of an OR nurse
Nursing has been hailed as one of the most recession-proof careers today. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for registered nurses will grow by 22 percent this decade, which the BLS says is "much faster than the average for all occupations."
[OR nurse Jennifer DeVault tends to a patient on her February trip to India with Operation Smile]
But what's it really like to work as a nurse? For the inside details, I spoke with Jennifer DeVault, a veteran OR nurse at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center who also volunteers with Operation Smile, a non-profit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to children around the world born with a cleft lip, cleft palate, or other facial abnormalities.
Why go into nursing?
"It's exciting, rewarding, and there's never a dull moment," says DeVault, who has worked in Seattle's operating rooms since 1987.
The job has been both an emotional and a financial lifeline for DeVault, who lost her husband two years ago. "I am so grateful that I have this career," she explains. "I'm able to support myself. I have a pension plan. I'm always learning. And as an Operation Smile volunteer, I'm able to travel the world."
How are the hours at the hospital?
During her 24 years in the OR, DeVault has worked every shift imaginable. Currently she works 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, a shift that allows her to squeeze in some exercise and errands before heading to work.
"It's really hard to work more than 8 hours [straight] in the operating room," DeVault says. "It's very intense. Twelve hours in the operating room is just an absolute killer."
DeVault, who lives in Bellevue, just 20 minutes from Swedish, is on call one weeknight a week and one weekend shift every five weeks. "Sometimes you're called in at 2 in the morning," she says. "Thirty minutes from the time you're called you need to be there and have that patient ready for surgery."
How has the profession changed over the decades?
"Moving to electronic medical records has been the biggest deal," DeVault says. "It's very difficult to focus on [updating] the medical record while the surgery's happening and you're trying to keep the patient safe."
In addition, DeVault says, these days, "there's a staggering amount of technology that an operating nurse is responsible to know" -- lasers, microscopes, and robotics to name a few. "You used to be able to do a tonsillectomy with a knife and a fork, and now there are several machines," she adds. "Every day there's another machine, another new technology, another way of doing things."
What is working with Operation Smile like?
"I've done 13 missions around the world," says DeVault, who spends the majority her time on these trips in surgery. "I'm thrilled to do it. I just came home from India two months ago."
DeVault's Operation Smile work has also taken her to China, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Ethiopia, South America, and Mexico. She uses her vacation days from Swedish to go on one or two of these missions a year, kicking in several hundred dollars of her own money to help offset the cost of each trip, with Operation Smile paying her airfare, hotel, and meals.
But this is no leisurely vacation. DeVault and her fellow volunteers will spend 5 to 8 days per trip in surgery, with only a one day or a half-day off to sightsee. "Each mission is typically around 100 to 150 kids," DeVault says. "The last mission I was on is what's called a mega-mission. We operated on 540 kids. Basically we worked eight days."
What do hopeful nurses need to know?
"To get through nursing school, you have to really want to do it," DeVault says. "There's a lot of emotion to the job. It can be demanding, it can be frustrating."
But it's not just the OR that's taxing, DeVault says. The ER, ICU, and even work as a floor nurse are incredibly demanding, too. "They're the last line of defense," she says. "Because the doctor's not always there. Sometimes it's the nurse that picks up that a patient doesn't look right. They can be the line between life and death."
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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