By Matt Skoufalos

In the course of a lifetime, every career path has twists and turns, but to Jackie Patterson, nursing is a field in which “you kind of end up falling into things.”

Prior to joining the cardiothoracic recovery unit at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, Patterson lived several professional lives. But since beginning there, she’s also passed up different opportunities to leave. She takes it as a sign that she’s in the right place.

It’s a lesson she learned early in life. Patterson earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and subsequently took a job as a ceramic studio technician at the University of Pennsylvania. The realities of 16-hour workdays – that left no time for her own creations and concerns about the ill health of her mother-in-law – soon heralded a career change.

“She would tell me that the nurse would leave a big fingerprint on her day; that she would have a good or bad day based on which nurse she had,” Patterson said. “That always stuck with me.”

Patterson decided to advance her education as a result, and enrolled in an accelerated bachelor’s program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She completed it in 13 months, and “knew right away that nursing was the right thing.” Upon graduation from nursing school, she took a night shift position on the telemetry floor of Kennedy Health in Washington Township, New Jersey. She knew it would be a stepping-stone to the next stage of her career and recalls that “it was very hard work.”

“There are nurses that make a career out of doing that type of floor nursing, and they were amazing,” she said. “They saw new nurses day after day, they precepted them, turned them into amazing nurses, saw them leave, and the new nurses come in.”

“I have a lot of respect for nurses who make a career out of floor nursing,” Patterson said. “Not many do. It’s physically hard. You have to be on your toes. Once you finish making the rounds, you’re making them again.”

Keeping on her toes was also a problem when night shift ended, leaving Patterson to join highway rush-hour traffic for her commute home. She remembers the toll of exhaustion setting in, and contriving various ways to fight nodding off behind the wheel – putting the windows down, blasting the radio, talking to someone on the phone. They didn’t help much.

“I’d be literally falling asleep singing,” Patterson said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. Luckily, I found a job at Lourdes [Health System], and I loved it right away.”

A friend invited Patterson to join her in the cardiac ICU at Lourdes for an assignment that was five minutes from her home. Eventually, she switched to the cardiothoracic recovery wing there, and she’s remained since. She cites its camaraderie, the responsiveness of colleagues, and autonomy of the work environment as key factors in remaining – that, and the opportunity to see patients recover, which wasn’t always present in her prior assignments.

“In a lot of ICUs, you see the same people over and over, and you send them home sick, and you know they’re coming back,” she said. “Where I am now, they come in sick, and you send them home healthy, and they’re going back to what they need to be doing.”

“You don’t get to follow up very often,” Patterson said. “But if you do connect with someone, it’s rewarding. You really do see people on the brink of death.”

Patterson’s unit is “nurse-driven,” she said, which makes a big difference in her outlook. Preset protocols for communication with doctors and physicians’ assistants allow for smooth workflow, and when nurses see changes in their patients, the doctors take them seriously, Patterson said.

“It’s definitely a family,” she said. “Nurses have left and come back because of how we are. I’ve had other opportunities open up for me, and I can’t leave because I love it so much.”

Some opportunities haven’t required Patterson to forsake her post at Lourdes, including training as a forensic nurse examiner. After a lengthy certification process, she became available to work as an independent examiner through the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office of New Jersey.

That meant on-call and overnight availability to respond to sexual assault cases at any of five hospitals within the county. The work, like her assignment in the cardiac ward, “was pretty intense,” Patterson said.

“You see someone in their darkest moment, and you do whatever you can to ease that,” she said. “I did not do that for very long, although I do still carry the certification. It’s a tough gig.”

“You’re going to see people from all different walks of life,” Patterson said. “I would see college students, homeless drug addicts; I’d get called in for kids. You really see every type of person.”

But once called in, Patterson performed the work for which she’d been trained: conducting intimate physical examinations from emotionally vulnerable patients, witnessing their injuries, and collecting their stories.

“You do a physical exam, and you document everything,” she said. “You collect this kit, and it had to be done soon, and in a way that you wouldn’t contaminate any specimens. The entire time you’re doing it, you’re communicating with the patient, making sure they know what you’re doing, that they’re aware, that they’re comfortable.”

“You know that they don’t want to be there,” she said. “You kind of don’t want to be there. But someone’s got to do it, and in the end you hope that you’re giving them justice.”

In one of the hardest cases she was called to investigate, Patterson eventually learned that her diligence led to the maximum sentence for an assailant who was found guilty in court.

“That was very rewarding,” she said. “Pretty amazing.”

Into whatever environment she’s been thrust, Patterson said she’s managed to thrive because she knows that she’s got options. With so many different specialties available to nurses, she knows that her career can adapt as her life circumstances or personal preferences shift. The knowledge of that freedom has given her the willingness to stay put.

“If you don’t like what you’re doing, there are so many different options,” Patterson said. “If you’re miserable at your job, other people can see that as well, so you should probably do something different. Or go back to school, use your degree, and do something that suits you better.”

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