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The Working Life: Denise McDonald
Certain people thrive at face-paced, high-stress, life-or-death jobs. Emergency room nurse Denise McDonald, head of the nursing department at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, is one of them. She shared with Noozhawk why she loves her job, what makes her squirm and some memorable patient conditions.
McDonald was raised in Gary, Ind., and came to Santa Barbara in 1980 to work for Cottage Hospital as a nurse.
“Back then, there as a shortage of nurses, so we had our choice of jobs,” she said. The hospital paid to relocate her, and she’s never looked back. Now, 30 years later, she runs the busy emergency room and undoubtedly has mentored hundreds of nurses.
McDonald remembers wanting to be a nurse at 10 years old. She said she has always been social, and that her job gives her plenty of opportunity to interact and help people. She describes ER nurses as a special breed: They are usually independent, dynamic, self-assured people who can hold their own with physicians and immense stress.
“In the ER, we are constantly moving from one thing to the next,” McDonald said. “We are extremely skilled at interviewing people efficiently and multitasking.”
When asked how she manages the emotional and physical stress that comes with working in such a high-pressure environment, she said, “Luckily, the traffic waxes and wanes, which gives us a break.”
She said nurses must show up well-rested and mentally alert. She de-stresses in her off time by riding her three horses in San Ysidro, where she lives. “When I’m riding, I’m transported and everything else falls away,” she said.
While I was in the ER, a patient came in seriously injured and bleeding profusely. I could barely look. I asked McDonald if anything makes her squeamish.
“I’ve seen quite a bit, and the only thing that really gets me are eyes (as in eyes that have come out),” she said.
She then described the three most random cases she has encountered: a woman who had accidentally swallowed her toothbrush, a man who had accidentally swallowed his spoon while guiding a meatball, and a man who called to say his wife had delivered a baby three months prior and he wanted to know when she could go outside again. “Now! Right this very minute, in fact,” she told him.
McDonald said the five most common reasons for a trip to the ER include fever, lacerations, chest pain, bone injury and — No. 1 — abdominal pain. She said as nurses, they focus on the person, not the injury. She said she gets a great deal of satisfaction out of her job, and while she often leaves physically and emotionally tired, she finds it rewarding.
In acknowledging that nursing is a profession that gets a great deal of respect, she said she has always been proud to claim it. She said it’s usually the first thing her father will mention when introducing someone to her. Most nurses have a drive to know more and improve their care, she said, creating an empowering environment.
McDonald said she doesn’t watch TV medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, but that she was a fan of ER. Her staff consulted for the show, which she says gave a realistic depiction of nursing life in an emergency room.
The Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital ER sees 42,000 patients annually.
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