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Orthopedic nurse continues to inspire others after 50 years

Orthopedic nurse continues to inspire others after 50 years
Phyllis D'Ambra celebrated her 50-year anniversary as an orthopedic nurse at Children's Hospital Los Angeles in October. (Courtesy of CHLA)

After spending half a century with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, orthopedic nurse Phyllis D’Ambra said she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

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D’Ambra, a Burbank resident, recently celebrated her 50-year anniversary with the renowned medical facility, where her entire career has been dedicated to children’s orthopedics.

However, D’Ambra said that area of healthcare was not her first choice.

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Graduating from Los Angeles Harbor College with a degree in nursing in 1968, the San Pedro native said she knew she wanted to work with children and also knew she wanted to avoid orthopedics.

“I was really afraid of it,” D’Ambra said. “In nursing school, I was taking care of elderly patients who were screaming and yelling. I didn’t think I could handle that.”

Because she wanted to help children, she was recommended to become a nurse at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. However, the only positions open at the facility at that time were in the orthopedic department for the surgical unit.

“But it really turned out to be sort of a wonderful thing,” D’Ambra said. “I really loved working with the kids, and I realized taking care of kids was much more different that taking care of adults. I just fell in love with it.”

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D’Ambra became involved in preventive care that focused on the spine. Since 1979, she and a team of nurses have gone to various schools in L.A. County to conduct scoliosis screenings on students.

Throughout her 50 years in orthopedics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, she has helped foster growth and change in the facility.

While research and medicine have helped patients heal faster, D’Ambra said a major health element that has improved vastly at the hospital has been helping families and patients understand their conditions and what needs to be done in order to get better.

“We recognized that family is the center part of our care in the patient, and all the physicians recognize that as well,” she said. “We’re taking a child that may have a spine that’s not straight, a foot that’s not straight or a hip that’s dislocated, but we’re not just looking at that. We’re looking at the entire family component because you can’t put a child through something unless everybody understands what the situation is, what the surgery is going to entail and what the recovery is.”

D’Ambra said when she started, doctors would just tell the child and their parents that surgery needed to be performed, and physicians did not bother to help families understand the possible complications and outcomes, which left patients confused and scared.

“It was a different time back then,” D’Ambra said. “You did whatever the doctor told you to do, and nobody ever questioned them, but that’s not what happens now.”

As she saw patients and their families becoming more respected and taken care of mentally, D’Ambra said it compelled her to stay in orthopedics.

Her influence extends outside of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Aside from mentoring nurses at the hospital, D’Ambra teaches nursing at both UCLA and Los Angeles Pierce College.

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She said she gets excited whenever she sees the next batch of enthusiastic student nurses. At the same time, D’Ambra said she is amazed at the progress in medicine and new techniques being taught to nursing students.

“I wish I was 20 years old again, so I could do this all over,” D’Ambra said.

With 50 years in the bag, D’Ambra said she wants to continue helping new nurses understand that patient care does not begin and end with the patient and that it involves the patient’s family.

“It took me a lot of years to learn that,” she said. “We can hang IVs, we can monitor everything and do all that, but there’s a body lying there that has a lot of emotions and a lot of physical needs and a family that’s trying to cope with all of it. That’s the whole complement to what we need to learn, and that’s something I need to pass on.”

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