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The IV League

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She has landed in a helicopter on snowy mountain roads to treat accident victims, tended to a man who left his severed arm on a train track and consoled the grief-stricken after gruesome medical tragedies.

Lisa Speer’s job as a critical-care transport nurse is enough to make some people cringe.

But for her, it is simply “the best nursing job I will ever have in my life.”

Adds the 33-year-old Encino resident, who has treated both gang members and movie stars: “Nursing is my passion. Nursing is an adventure to me.”

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While white-uniformed hospital nurses quietly making the rounds of patient rooms is one image of nursing, Speer represents quite another. Think, perhaps, of Carol Hathaway, the tough, courageous, compassionate nurse from television’s popular series “ER.”

Nursing professionals say such shows as “ER” and “Chicago Hope” help the public understand how exciting, challenging and, yes, exceedingly difficult the profession can be. They also credit them with helping to attract young people into the profession.

“I would put a day of nursing up against almost any other occupation in the adventure field,” says Barbara Bronson-Gray, a registered nurse and editor of NurseWeek, a magazine distributed to 235,000 California nurses. “The things nurses deal with on a daily basis--patients having cardiac arrest, families in crisis, thorny ethical issues and clinical decision-making--is about as much adventure as most people can take on a job.”

Though much of the news out of nursing these days is discouraging--hospital layoffs, restructuring of nurses’ jobs and controversy over certain HMO practices--Bronson-Gray and others see plenty of bright spots.

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For one, nursing employment is growing by about 5% annually, industry officials say. Hospitals in some California cities are reporting shortages of nurses in specialized areas such as pediatrics, intensive-care, surgery and emergency-room. One Southern California children’s hospital recently listed 75 openings for nurses.

Hiring is taking place because the managed-care industry in the state is relatively mature compared with other parts of the country and is now readjusting from earlier downsizing, says Bronson-Gray, who lectures at the UCLA School of Nursing.

“Also, with the state growing and the economy doing well, fewer nurses are needing to work lots of hours because their partners are working,” she says.

While some nurses say managed care has heightened conflict in the health-care industry, pitting patients’ needs against companies’ needs to maximize profits, others see the changes as part of the ever-evolving field of medicine. The adventure in nursing didn’t start with, and won’t end with, managed care, they say.

“With the changes in American health care, there is a lot of frustration,” says Julie Chait, a nurse who works with organ transplant patients at UCLA Medical Center. “But we sometimes don’t realize just how much we have to be thankful for.”

That point was driven home for Chait when she and a team of doctor and nurse volunteers from UCLA traveled to a children’s hospital in Lima, Peru, last year. They helped train Peruvian doctors and nurses in the latest methods for treating children with severe heart ailments.

“People there were so appreciative of everything we did,” Chait says. “People would stop you in the hallway and want to take your photo, or they would say these prayers for you. I think we made an incredible difference.”

Dusty Dowenkamp, a registered nurse who supervises disaster-relief services for the American Red Cross, believes she is making a difference, too.

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For more than two decades, the San Diego County resident has been rushed to the scene of some of this country’s greatest disasters: Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, and the crash of TWA Flight 800 last July.

Dowenkamp says medicine has appealed to her since childhood. “I wanted to be a doctor, but at that point, in the early ‘60s, little girls didn’t grow up to be doctors. They just got married.”

Last July, Dowenkamp boarded a bus and escorted to a memorial service dozens of family members and friends of a newly married couple killed in the TWA jet explosion.

“I was with them, sharing in their grief as well as their joyous remembrances,” says Dowenkamp, who coordinated the Red Cross’ mental health services after the crash. “It was a very challenging task.”

Though her job requires unexpected travel, harsh living conditions and heavy stress, “it is also exciting,” she says. “I have an opportunity to make a difference in helping people when life is treating them at their worst.”

Though the daily dose of tragedy and grief can take its toll on their personal lives, nurses say, many also thrive on the unpredictable and exhilarating nature of their work.

“Every day you come through the door and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Kathleen Gentile, a nurse in the trauma recovery room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

Like Dowenkamp, Speer was drawn to medicine as a child, when she would “pick up wounded animals and bandage them all up.” By the time she was 13, she had volunteered at a nursing home and witnessed with her mother--a nurse manager at an Arkansas hospital--the drama of an emergency room and maternity delivery room.

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“I just knew in my heart that it was what I was meant to do, to be a nurse like you see on ‘ER,’ ” she says. “You have a choice to do lots of different nursing that is slower-paced and where you may not have to make so many decisions. But it’s not my style of nursing.”

Late one night, while Speer and an orderly were transporting a cardiac patient through a basement at UCLA Medical Center, the patient’s heart went into a life-threatening arrhythmia. “I thumped on his chest and he came back to life,” she says.

“It’s invigorating, like the rush you feel when you’re almost in a car accident,” Speer says of those moments when life hangs in the balance. “We call it the ‘pump,’ and it’s very addicting, to be able to make a difference in people’s lives.”


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