I Found My People…in a Completely Different Town

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I mentioned in one of my first columns that I am a nurse, but you may have forgotten that by now because I haven’t breathed a word of it since. Hang tight, because this week I’m taking you back to work with me. Well, not exactly to work yet, but we’re headed in that direction.

I took an extended leave from nursing last October to help care for my father in Minnesota. Caregiving for a family member is nursing in one sense, but an entirely different ballgame in another. At my dad’s, I had been able to take care of his needs even if I stayed in my pajamas all day. My mind went soft in places as it narrowed to the parameters of his world, which some days included just an endless string of Gunsmoke episodes. Sometimes the most probing thought of the day was why Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty never did tie the knot. 

After a few months of amorphous days, I wasn’t sure if I could still squeeze back into the container of hospital nursing, but when I remembered that scrubs are basically pajamas, I was optimistic. Besides, I was returning to my travel nursing job in Montana, a routine I know well.

Being a travel nurse could be likened to working as a substitute teacher in a school district that covers thousands of square miles; a substitute teacher with the breadth of skills that would make it possible for her to sidle up to the kindergarten finger-painting table one day, and teach high school Geometry the next. 

Like substitute teaching, the length of travel nurse assignments varies greatly, depending on the need. Sometimes you’re filling in for a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and sometimes it’s long term, like covering for a nurse on maternity leave.

In the same way substitute teachers find a good fit in certain classrooms, but never return to others, so it goes as well with the travel nurse. Sometimes you work a hospital gig where you’re in and out under the cover of night, and sometimes find your groove and make friends. In rare cases, you find a place so good you want to write your name on masking tape, claim a locker, and stay awhile. 

Madison Valley Medical Center (MVMC) in Ennis, Montana, is one of those places for me. It’s the hospital I always choose first from the list of assignments, and I’m heartened to know that, despite the long pauses between my shifts, they keep my name on their scheduling template.

My very first shift at MVMC is one I recollect with the same clarity and endearment that I remember my first date with my now husband. At 7 a.m., I stood with my back against the break room sink, nervously pulling on each end of the stethoscope draped around my neck while the night nurse gave the shift handoff report. After detailing the patients’ diagnoses, medications, treatment plans, and current conditions, she poured a cup of coffee, cleared her throat, and settled into a spot at the table to hold court. 

As the other nurses gathered round, I braced myself for discomfort, figuring it would be one of the usual, banal discussions about someone not restocking the 18 gauge needles in the ER, or how someone didn’t chart a patient’s urine output correctly. Instead, the nurse transitioned into a story about a community member who had called the nurse’s station looking for someone to come help her administer insulin injections to her newly diagnosed diabetic cat.  

Everyone seemed to know the woman with the diabetic cat. There were peals of  laughter, witty commentary, and more coffee as the nurse described her after-hours house call for feline insulin injection.

Next was a dramatic reenactment by the other night shift nurse of a drunk member of a wedding party wandering into the ER in the middle of the night, barefoot and bewildered. She added that while the nurses were digging through the lost and found box for shoes, even flip flops in his size, a woman had arrived at registration with the complaint of “uncontrollable laughter.”

The last story before we hit the floor was of a man who’d arrived by ambulance after taking a fall at home. He claimed the problem was that he’d been trying out using an essential oils blend called “Balance” on the soles of his feet in lieu of using his walker. “That stuff is a waste of money!” he bellowed. 

Despite the comedic twists on patient interactions, the integrity, kindness, and respect among the nurses was palpable. My suspicion that I had entered into a culture of genuine caring was confirmed by the cork board in the break room, covered in thank-you notes, letters, drawings, postcards, and poems from grateful patients.

That inaugural week in Ennis was one of many nursing “firsts” for me. Besides being the first time I had been that entertained at shift report, it was also the first time I’d seen a doctor’s order for a patient to have “one ounce of whiskey, nightly,” and, subsequently, the first time I’d seen a bottle of Wild Turkey locked up with the narcotics in the med room. It was also the first time I witnessed a doctor, the same one who prescribed the whiskey, remove a fishhook from someone’s eyebrow in three seconds flat, then stick it in a cork board in the ER under a sign that read, “What did YOU catch today?”

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