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Dome - A Second Act of Compassion

DOME MAY 2013

A Second Act of Compassion

Date: May 31, 2013


Jill Moeller, Kevin Witcher, Hella Ewing
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Jill Moeller (left), a pediatric nurse at JHCP’s Canton Crossing location, says she developed communications skills as a guide dog trainer in New York. Now a nurse in the adult emergency department of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Kevin Witcher previously performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations. He sees a strong correlation between the two fields in making people feel better. Before coming to All Children’s Hospital, Hella Ewing worked 14-hour days repairing F-15s. She credits her training in the U.S. Air Force for learning how to be a leader.

Nurses throughout Johns Hopkins Medicine have come to their profession from backgrounds in the military, music industry, entertainment, food service and social work. Many say they have purposefully sought work that would allow them to help patients, and their family members, through some of life’s most difficult and vulnerable moments.

The desire for second careers in nursing continues to grow rapidly, according to the American Association of College of Nursing, which collects data on accelerated baccalaureate degree nursing programs that transition people with other degrees into nursing.  From 2006 to 2012, enrollments in these programs grew 77 percent to 15,000. Last year, there were almost 10,000 graduates — an increase of 90 percent in the six-year period.

Such figures not only acknowledge the psychological satisfactions of the profession but also its range of opportunity. These stories tell of 10 nurses from around the health system who began their careers on different paths. 

Inspired by Interactions

A three-week hospital stay offers plenty of time to reflect, as Eileen Gartland discovered back in 1991. She’d been admitted for pregnancy preeclampsia, a condition that causes a serious spike in blood pressure. As she talked to her nurses, Gartland took note of their compassionate ways and thorough care.

Gartland once dreamed of becoming a doctor. But because she excelled in chemistry, she thought lab work would be a better fit. After college, she found jobs in cancer research, first at the National Institutes of Health, followed by a stint at a small pharmaceutical research company, where she worked until her pregnancy complications landed her in the hospital.

The interactions with those nurses, says Gartland, caused her to consider entering the field of nursing, and she went on to earn her B.S.N. degree in an accelerated nursing program.

Now a seasoned Johns Hopkins Home Care Group admissions nurse, Gartland visits new patients in their homes every day, learning medical histories and receiving doctors’ orders. Home care, she says, “lets you see how people are really living and provides a chance for you to help with long-term problems.”   

Answering the Call

As chief nursing officer at All Children’s Hospital, Hella Ewing is responsible for leading 650 nurses, many of whom might be surprised to learn that Ewing has an electronics degree and got her professional start fixing fighter jets.

After eight years in the U.S. Air Force, however, Ewing heard the call to take up nursing during a grueling period when her husband was hospitalized for a serious illness. For several months, she worked 14-hour days fixing F-15s before heading to his bedside.

“The nurses could see I was stressed and wasn’t eating,” she recalls. “One evening, a nurse brought me dinner. She said she’d made dinner for her family and just made one more. After that, every night for the rest of his stay, a member of the nursing team brought me dinner.”

That kind of above-and-beyond compassion appealed to Ewing, so much so that she left her military career to enter nursing. Before long, hospital administrators tapped Ewing for a leadership role, one for which her years in the Air Force had prepared her.

“The Air Force was a great place to learn about leadership,” she says. “If you saw a problem, they’d encourage you to fix it.” Now in her third year at All Children’s, Ewing believes in empowering front-line hospital staff to participate in setting direction and policy.

Rock Steady

Psychiatric nurse Margie Donahue has always loved to rock. When she received a bachelor’s degree in music industry studies, she snagged a job as a publicist at Boston’s Wonderdrug Records, a heavy metal label. But though she loved the music, Donahue wasn’t enamored with the life of promoting local bands.

In 2002, when she gave birth to her son, she considered a career in nursing. “I had a wonderful nurse named Rose,” she says. “She was so nurturing and caring. I thought, `I want to be this for someone else.’”

Donahue entered the nursing program at the Community College of Baltimore County. Her first clinical rotation was at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and she cherishes her job there as a nurse in the acute psychiatric unit.

“I was drawn to it because I like offering hope and support for people,” she says. “Hopefully you watch them progress. It feels good to see people discharged and happy and looking forward to their lives.” 

Coming Full Circle

Heather Dougherty quit her job as a caseworker in child welfare to take care of her ailing father. An only child whose parents were divorced, Dougherty helped her father navigate surgeries, radiation and myriad complications as he battled metastatic lung cancer.

She remembers the day her father underwent his first surgery—a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor. When he was recovering in the perianesthesia unit, the middle-aged man started pointing to her head, but she couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Seeing her confusion, the male PACU nurse gently told her that her father wanted to kiss her on the forehead.

“It was exactly what he wanted,” says Dougherty, now PACU nurse manager at Howard County General Hospital. “That therapeutic relationship is something I never forgot.” After her father died, Dougherty asked his care providers if they thought she could take care of strangers the way she cared for her father. “Everyone agreed that it would actually be easier,” she says.

Moving ahead with nursing prerequisites, she eventually graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Next came seven years in neurocritical care at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Now she manages 21 people and oversees daily operations in the PACU, which she calls “critical care nursing on the fly.”

She says her thoughts often wander back to that transformative experience with her dad. And she feels the rewards of calming patients’ family members in the moments before and after surgery.

A Tasteful Decision

For more than two decades, Johnny Spencer had a thriving career in the food service industry, working as a waiter, bartender, manager and banquet captain in high-end restaurants, hotels and catering halls around the country.

“I enjoyed what I did—but I felt unfulfilled,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’d come home and feel it was the same routine and I didn’t make a difference in the world.”

One day a friend invited him to attend a workshop at The Johns Hopkins Hospital on health disparities among minorities. “I kept looking at the clinicians around the room and said to myself, `I want to be one of these guys,’” he says. “That was my aha moment.”

After graduating last year from the nursing program at Frederick Community College, Spencer was hired by Suburban Hospital as an operating room nurse. He says his food industry background prepared him to be on his feet a lot, provide constant service and multitask frequently.

“Now I enjoy going to work,” he says. “It’s thrilling to be part of a team ... and it makes you feel like you’ve changed the world for the better.”

Reclaiming a Dream

The decision to change careers was sparked by a conversation during a weekend trip in 1990 to Ocean City, Md., says Kathleen Grieve. Although she had built a solid career in food service, advancing to manager at Clyde’s of Columbia, she told her girlfriends that she hungered for more fulfilling work.

One of them asked, “What about nursing?” That happened to be the profession she had admired in high school, long before she married, divorced and established herself in the restaurant work that immediately fit into her schedule as a single mother. Now that her youngest child had left for college, Grieve could heed the call.

After enrolling in Howard Community College, she rented out her home to cover the mortgage, moved into an attic apartment and shouldered three part-time jobs en route to her R.N. degree, later followed by a bachelor’s degree in nursing and master’s in health administration.

Grieve worked as a nurse in shock trauma, then in the state prison system and in workers’ compensation. Upon arriving at Johns Hopkins HealthCare in 2003, she was assigned to Guided Care, a Hopkins-developed model of primary care that uses physician-nurse teams to care for older patients with multiple chronic conditions.

Now a nurse case manager, she helps patients understand how to manage diabetes, asthma, heart disease and other complex conditions. “I love seeing the difference that teaching and encouragement can make in their lives,” she says.

Assuring the Quality of Care

Candice Spock once made a living squeezing dough balls in an English muffin factory, testing for toxins in a peanut butter factory and supervising the production of grilling sauces in a retrofitted pickle plant. A background in biochemistry and food product development served Spock well as she took supervisory jobs across the country. In the overlapping fields of quality assurance and quality control, Spock’s talent for solving problems, detecting weaknesses and improving operations made her a rock star.

Twenty years ago, weary of her nomadic life, Spock enrolled in an emergency medical services course with plans to become a physician assistant. In class, she met a nurse who worked in a pediatric burn center. Inspired by her intelligence and dedication, Spock decided instead to become a nurse.

Since her graduation from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in 1996, Spock has cared for critically ill newborns on The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. As she did in her quality-control work, Spock follows protocol while asking herself, “What can I do to improve the situation this minute?” Working on the NICU “is my calling,” she says.

A Guiding Mission

Imagine the challenge of navigating the busy streets and subways of Manhattan. Now imagine pulling it off with a pack of dogs in tow.

“Every day, I’d put five Labrador retrievers in a van and take them someplace to learn how to be around people,” says Jill Moeller, a pediatric nurse at JHCP’s Canton Crossing location and a former guide dog trainer in New York. “I’d take them on the subway and they’d learn how to wait on the platform. I’d take them to the park and to the store—all the places New Yorkers go.”

Before becoming a nurse, Moeller spent six years at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit dedicated to providing guide dogs to people who need them. The program called for five months of daily dog training followed by a month of training with the visually impaired “students.”

Her pediatric nursing career benefits from many skills she developed as a trainer. “I especially use the communication skills,” she says. “Working with visually impaired people, I learned how to describe things in great detail. Both jobs are about making decisions with less-than-optimal information.”

A Lyrical Approach

There’s always a song swirling inside Kevin Witcher’s head. “I sing at work almost all the time,” says Witcher, a nurse in the adult emergency department at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has found that well-chosen melodies and lyrics can put patients and caregivers at ease, even in chaotic situations.

After earning a B.F.A. degree in music and dance, Witcher cultivated his knack for reading audiences in traveling productions of musicals such as Grease and Raisin, as well as in stints on cruise ships and in theme parks. He also taught dance and theater at a private school and signed on with a company that supplies party bands for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.

After years of performing, Witcher began thinking about a more secure career. The 10th of 13 children, he grew up surrounded by “really great nurses,” including his mother who had been a licensed practical nurse.

Inspired by friends and loved ones, Witcher enrolled in nursing school in Virginia. After graduation, he worked briefly at Suburban Hospital before taking his current job. Now he’s also pursuing a degree as an adult primary care nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Entertainment and patient care have much in common, he says. “Their ultimate goal is to make people feel better. The tools are similar, too. If you come in with a smile, you immediately make people feel better.”  

Cultural Awareness

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a subject she loved, Bobbie Khan took a job in the University of Minnesota’s pediatric gastroenterology department because she could not find work in her own field. Over the next 13 years, as she served in various administrative positions across the institution, she realized that the best part of such work was helping others, particularly patients. And she began to think that a career in nursing would prove fulfilling. She eventually returned to school to earn a B.S.N. degree and also a master’s degree in nursing.

Recently, she accepted her first nursing position as a medical-surgical oncology nurse at Sibley Memorial Hospital. “I’m challenged every day,” Khan says. “To be able to provide comfort during a patient’s critical illness, or to support families who lose their loved ones, provides instant fulfillment. ...   I’m learning so much—one person at a time.”

Meanwhile, she’s also using the insights gained from her college major. Anthropology, she notes, is about understanding culture and picking up on cues—“something I do every day.”

—Alan Feiler, Judy F. Minkove, Stephanie Shapiro, Linell Smith and Patrick Smith

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