THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Emergency Flair : Blood and guts don’t get to Theresa Ann Cesiro, but suffering patients do. It’s one reason she was named O.C.'s Emergency Nurse of the Year.
Theresa Ann Cesiro looked at her watch for the third time during her half-hour break in the cafeteria at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. Lifting her tray from the table, she apologized. Time to get back to the emergency room.
Thirty-minute lunches and quick conversation are second nature to Cesiro, who was recently named Orange County’s Emergency Nurse of the Year. The daughter of a critical-care nurse, Cesiro was practically raised in a hospital. She learned early on what is involved in saving lives and accepting death.
“My mom was a little hesitant at first,” recalled Cesiro, 30. “She didn’t know if nursing was something that I really wanted to do. That’s because she knew what it was like. It’s not a glamorous job.”
Maybe not glamorous, but definitely interesting. Cesiro, who “loves blood and guts,” has seen everything from a child with a bean up his nose to a teen-ager who was shot six times outside the hospital. Just part of an appropriate career choice for someone who saved her first life at 14.
It was Cesiro’s extraordinary bedside manner that helped single her out of a pool of 255 nurses who work in 40 emergency rooms in the county, said Kathleen Thomas of the Orange County Emergency Nurses Assn., or OCENA.
“Basically, this year we asked for a brief summary of why they should be considered for the award,” Thomas said. “She was described as someone possessing integrity, pride, compassion and a heart of gold. Someone who treats everybody equally, like royalty.”
In fact, sometimes she gets almost too involved with her patients.
“Yes, I’ve gone home crying quite often,” Cesiro said. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m one of those touchy-feely type of people.”
As she made her way back to work, Cesiro grabbed a chart and approached a patient. Sobbing, the young woman had just arrived after putting her finger in a cable-stripping machine at her factory job. Her finger wrapped in bloody gauze, she sat on the gurney, holding her mangled digit an arm’s length away, like a problem she wanted no part of.
Carefully, Cesiro unwrapped the bandage, inspected the wound and asked the patient if she had pain.
“ Tiene dolor? " she asked.
Nodding, the patient managed a weak smile, her face stained with tears. Cesiro knew the answer she would get. After more than four years in the ER at Fountain Valley, she’s found pain to be a universal language.
“I know just enough (Spanish) to get the information I need,” she said, filling out the patient’s chart. “Sometimes, they just need to know you’re there taking care of them.”
Some Spanish is essential in emergency room situations, and with Little Saigon nearby, Cesiro said, the 10 words she knows in Vietnamese are vital. She wants to learn more, but for the time being, the communication tools she now has suffice.
Everyone who works with Cesiro says she’s fluent in the kind of telepathic nursing that sets her apart from those who simply do the job.
“She’s very good with the hostile patients, families and our patients in need,” said Peter Anderson, a 20-year veteran of Fountain Valley’s ER and one of the seven doctors who work there on a rotating basis, treating anywhere from 80 to 100 patients daily.
“She’s a very compassionate lady who takes excellent care of her patients.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cesiro’s family moved often to accommodate the several transfers her father, Paul, made as a Western Union executive. But hospitals remained one of the constants in her life. Her mother, Delores, has been a nurse for most of Theresa’s childhood.
“When we would move, mom would get a job in another hospital. That’s the way it was,” she said.
When Theresa was in high school, and her younger sister, Catherine, was in third grade, the Cesiros settled for eight years in California, making their home in Upland.
It was at the former Ontario Community Hospital that a young Theresa Cesiro watched and learned as her mother cared for patients in the critical-care unit.
“I have a lot of respect for my mother,” she said. “To watch her at work, it was like, ‘Wow! I want to do that some day.’ ”
Each school day, her bus traveled right by the hospital. But Theresa didn’t like waiting until her scheduled bus stop. She remembered that she couldn’t get to the hospital fast enough to see how her mother’s patients were doing.
“After a while, my parents wrote a letter and signed a form so that the bus could actually stop and let me off at the hospital after school. I was there a lot.”
Cesiro’s afternoons in the critical-care unit exposed her to everything from attempted suicides to accident victims on life support.
“I remember this young kid was in the ICU for a drug overdose, and I was sitting there waiting for my mom. All of a sudden he started bleeding--from his eyes, his nose, everywhere. My mom heard the code from the next room, went in there and got his heart started again,” she said.
“Then, she comes out calmly and says, ‘We’re going to be a little late.’ I couldn’t believe it. I would have been a basket case.”
Cesiro’s parents now live in Henderson, Nev. Her father is retired, but her mother still works as a critical-care unit nurse. Theresa’s sister, Catherine, 25, is a medical assistant in Chicago, married and has a 4-year-old daughter.
“This is a job that you either love it or hate it,” Theresa Cesiro said. “My mom’s sister and her husband are both X-ray techs, and her aunt and two of her daughters are both nurses. So, it’s all in the family.”
She learned a lot from her mother, but in retrospect, she said, her true introduction to emergency medicine came outside the hospital.
She was 14 when her best friend’s grandfather suffered a heart attack, hit the bathroom floor and stopped breathing.
“I took a CPR class at school and started working on him,” she recalled. “When the paramedics got there, they said, ‘Who did CPR? He’s alive.”
“That made me really think about it,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is really neat. I could do this.’ ”
Cutting the conversation short, Cesiro looked up to see the paramedics walk by with a swaddled baby boy. He had been a big surprise, delivered moments earlier in a Westminster obstetrician’s office and brought with his mother by ambulance to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital.
“Excuse me,” she said with a smile, as she followed the bundle down the hall. “I’ve got to go see that baby.”
Cesiro hopes to have children of her own one day but said with a grin that she just hasn’t found the right guy. Looking at the tiny newborn, she said, she cherishes such tender moments in a job that brings her to tears all too often.
“One of the saddest ones I remember was a 12-year-old suicide victim. She put the gun in her mouth and did it,” Cesiro recalled. “You just look at them and think, it’s such a waste. I came out of the room crying; I cried in the bathroom and I cried all the way home.”
Her best friend, Misty Diaz, 23, said Cesiro “cares about every patient who walks through that door.” More than once, Diaz said, Cesiro has come home from work and gone straight to her house next door, to tell her another painful ER story.
“I remember one time, there was a lady--she came in and was having a miscarriage. (Theresa) felt so bad for her. She felt really bad. She’s so professional at work, she has to have someone to talk to.”
Cesiro said it’s hard to distance herself from hospital stress. Between teaching emergency medical technicians, studying for her master’s degree and adding to her long list of medical certifications, there is little time left for things outside medicine. She unwinds by making crafts, doing a word puzzle or watching a movie with friends.
“There are times when it gets to you, but every day is different,” she said. “The stories aren’t all bad.”
Cesiro cited one instance involving a little boy named Brian, whose ER story had a happy ending, although she didn’t think so at the time.
“He was a near-drowning victim,” she recalled. “Sometimes when they leave here, you never see them again. I remember that when he left, we still weren’t sure if he had brain damage, and I wanted to follow up on him.”
Weeks later, Cesiro said, she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the toddler walking down the hospital corridor with his mother.
“Look, Brian,” the boy’s mother had said, pointing to Cesiro. “That’s the woman who saved your life!”
With outstretched arms, the child ran to Cesiro and gave her a hug.
“It was a Hallmark card,” she said. “It was nice.”
Flanked by her parents and her aunt, 11-year-old Sarah Yardley sat on the examination table in Room 7 of the emergency room, looking for some answers.
“Will it hurt?” asked the girl, clutching the hand she injured at a nearby ice-skating rink.
“Yes, it will hurt,” Cesiro said, “but only for a minute.”
“A little or a lot?” she pressed, her eyes fixed on the nurse.
“Probably a lot,” Cesiro said, as she told Sarah about the injection the doctor was going to make before he stitched her hand.
“A lot?” the child asked again, hoping for a different answer.
“Yep, I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “But that’s the worst part.”
The girl told Cesiro that she had been skating with friends at the Ice Capades Chalet in Costa Mesa when someone accidentally skated over her hand.
“I was going really fast, and I put my hand down,” she said. “He skated right over it. He felt bad. He didn’t mean to.”
Nurse Cesiro was right: It did hurt. But Sarah tried to be brave as the doctor injected a painkiller into the wound and sewed up the gashes in the girl’s fingers.
“Boy, are we lucky,” said Sarah’s father, Rod Yardley. “They tell me we have the Emergency Nurse of the Year working on you. See, Sarah,” he said, looking at Cesiro, “things aren’t all that bad.”
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Theresa Ann Cesiro
Background: Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sept. 29, 1964. Currently resides in Ontario; works in the emergency room of the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center.
Education: Bachelor’s in philosophy, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; associate degree in nursing, Joliet Junior College, Joliet, Ill., currently enrolled in the statewide nursing program at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Certified in emergency nursing, trauma nursing, advanced cardiac life support, advanced cardiac life support instruction, basic life support, basic life support instruction, pediatric advanced life support, neonatal resuscitation and mobile intensive care nursing. Working on master’s degree in nursing education.
Family: Father, Paul Cesiro, 54, retired Western Union executive. Mother, Delores, 52, a critical-care nurse, both living in Henderson, Nev. Sister, Catherine Mays, 25, a medical assistant in Chicago.
Passions: Medicine, children, word puzzles, books and going to the movies with friends.
On the nursing profession: “I love the action, the variety and the challenge. . . . There is almost never a dull moment.”
On being named Emergency Nurse of the Year: “I was beyond words. . . . It was the ultimate peer recognition.”
On death: “Because of the large number of severe cases, you are bound to see people die. Sometimes the patient is brought in too late, and at other times modern medicine is simply not enough.”