NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The latest in our occasional series on work and vocation. We call it: What Do People Do All Day?
EICHER: Today, what do nurses do all day?
The World Health Organization says there are about 4 million nurses in this country. Yet demand for their services is increasing. That’s why the American Nurses Association projects more registered nurse job openings by 2022 than any other profession in the United States.
Today, WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick visits a young nurse to learn how she does her job and why.
J.C. DERRICK, REPORTER: I’m standing in the NeuroCare ICU at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. This critical care unit treats patients who have suffered serious internal injuries—like a stroke or Meningitis.
In other words: These are among the sickest of the sick.
WEBER: This tends to be the worst day of people’s life when they’re here. It’s the medical emergency everyone dreads.
That’s Melissa Weber. She works here in what would be a stressful atmosphere for even the most experienced nurse. But she’s 22 years old.
Right now, she’s taking part in the morning meeting with doctors, nurses, and a pharmacist. It’s almost like listening to a foreign language.
NURSE: Alright, he’s on Decadron 4Q6, and he’s on Keppra for seizure prophylactic, 1 gram BID.
The average American RN is 50 years old, and the average starting age is about 30. Weber secured this job at 20.
She says she feels like she was born for this.
WEBER: You know you get the career list as a kid: Do you want to be a teacher? Do you want to be an astronaut? Do you want to be a nurse? And I was like, I want to be a nurse. I just knew that, right off the bat.
Growing up in a homeschooling family helped. Weber’s mom tailored her curriculum to help her meet her career goal. She started taking community college classes at 16 and earned a nursing degree—debt free—from Liberty University four years later.
Sometimes, her youthful look presents a challenge.
WEBER: I think especially with family members, they assume I’m just like a tech or like a CNA, not a nurse. So oftentimes that’s why I introduce myself as, “Hello, I’m Melissa. I’m the nurse.”
Once Weber starts answering their questions, family members start to feel at ease.
WEBER: It’s developing that rapport and that trust, and it does take time with everyone. But I think initially, yeah, people would look at me and they’re like, ‘Are you 12?’ And I’m just like, ‘Oh, I look young for my age.’ And I try not to tell them how old I actually am.
Today Weber has two patients. Standing just over 5 feet tall, she deftly moves in and out of tight spaces as the doctors make their rounds.
WEBER: One patient is here because he has a brain tumor. I’m mostly managing his pain. This patient here is a seizure patient, so we don’t have a great history for why he started having continuous seizures, probably because of a drug overdose. We had a tox screening that showed he had a lot of opiates in his system.
The man was found unresponsive and taken to another facility. That facility didn’t have the equipment to continuously monitor his seizures, so it transferred him here. Earlier this morning, the critical care unit successfully stopped the seizures—ending about 36 straight hours of convulsing.
WEBER: Seizures are basically just the electrical conductions in the brain keep going crazy, right? They’re firing all the time. It causes the brain to overheat, and it shuts down other parts of the body—when they don’t stop.
A machine is regulating the man’s body temperature to 36 degrees Celsius. A heating blanket keeps him from shivering.
WEBER: This is cooling him because we think his brain sustained either a hypoxic—which is low oxygenation—or anoxic—which is no oxygenation injury. And so they decided, for optimal brain protection, they wanted to cool him for 24 hours.
Various beeps interrupt Weber as she talks. She says there are about 20 different tones—all sending a specific message.
WEBER: Each machine has a beep. [beep] So that beep, I’m out of something. So I need to add volume to my drip. I’m gonna walk over and do that.
Weber is constantly in motion—checking lines, drawing blood, and administering medication.
WEBER: This is just B vitamin. A lot of times patients who abuse substances will be deficient in a lot of their vitamins, which can cause other things in the body to be out of whack. So we’re just replacing that.
A bit of medical mystery is the norm here. This particular man can’t communicate what he’s experiencing or provide medical history. But all of the unit’s patients have suffered some kind of internal trauma. That means a constant search for clues.
Weber says she enjoys the problem-solving aspect of her job, but the endings are not always happy: Last month, the unit had a 10 percent mortality rate.
So how does she deal with that?
WEBER: I pray a lot. I like to pray for patients either quietly in my head or sometimes I’ll pray with families. And I talk about it a lot with my friends. I process it in different ways. Sometimes I feel like I have to cry for the patient. Like I have to grieve their loss. And other times it’s a little bit more detached, I’d say.
Weber’s friends and church family play an important support role—especially since her family lives across the country in San Diego. But she says it’s her faith that keeps her going.
WEBER: I think it gives a lot of compassion and empathy in difficult situations. It’s just to be here for people and to care for people. And I think it’s easier to do that when you have God’s love just always refueling you. Otherwise it’s pretty easy to get burnt out.
Weber uses that fuel outside of work, too—volunteering at an after-school ministry on her days off. She says she likes living in an area with needs to meet.
Professionally, she’s studying for another workplace certification—with an eye toward the future.
WEBER: I see eventually like five years, 10 years down the road, being like a nurse practitioner someday. But one thing at a time. I’m happy where I’m at.
For WORLD Radio, I’m J.C. Derrick reporting from Baltimore, Maryland.