When Mary Salabounis arrived at Aspen Valley Hospital in Aspen, Colorado, it was as a travel nurse. In the mountains, health care workers count ski seasons instead of years, and Salabounis is on her third, having relocated for good after two prior seasons interrupted by a summer tour of duty in Bozeman, Montana. She’s flourished in Aspen, having taken home a Colorado Health Care Stars Award in February for her work educating surgical staff on LEAN methodology and earning a promotion to charge nurse along the way. It seems only fitting that Salabounis should be lauded for bringing her peers up to speed on best practices; after all, she said, it’s how she was brought up in the field.

Mary Salabounis is seen with her nursing staff.About 13 years ago, Salabounis was in the middle of successful a sales career in Chicago. Looking for a way to give back in her down time, she discovered that the nearby Advocate hospital in Libertyville, Illinois, broadcast an inpatient bingo channel on its closed-circuit network. Salabounis thought it would be fun to be a caller, but discovered that the Advocate bingo network only aired during business hours, while she was working. The only alternative volunteer opportunity available was in the emergency room, which Salabounis “just really couldn’t wrap [her] brain around.”

“I really was not familiar with the environment,” she said. “I had never been around people with an illness or an emergency. I just wanted to be the lady that provided the fun. I said I would try it once.”

When she arrived, Salabounis saw how hard the floor staff was working; how anxiety and anticipation weighed on patients waiting to be seen. She decided to come back for a second day, armed with crossword puzzles and coloring pages. The nurses started sending her on kitchen errands to fetch meals for patients who were being admitted. Suddenly, an unenviable chore became an opportunity to make people comfortable, and Salabounis found herself making a routine of her three-hour Monday night visits. Along the way, the examples of a few hard-working staffers motivated her to take up nursing full-time.

“A few nurses stood out as having made a difference in the world and being patient and kind,” Salabounis said. “They inspired me that I could work just as hard, but rather than changing a corporation’s bottom line, I could change someone’s life. At 32 years old, I quit my job in sales and entered nursing school.”

One of those was nurse Karen Turel, who set an example of kindness and professionalism, Salabounis recalled, particularly in treating inmates, the homeless, or patients with fetid wounds. Another ER nurse, whom she only remembers as Michael, helped her with a nursing-school paper on anaphylaxis and told her, “You’re going to be great at this.”

“The whole crew of doctors and nurses who were there on a Monday night inspired me to open that door,” Salabounis said. “Had I been somewhere else, I don’t know if I would have been so welcomed into the profession.”

From those early moments, or perhaps in deference to them, Salabounis still takes inspiration from the variety of challenges she encounters in the nursing field, be they from coworkers, patients, or difficult surgical cases. Emergencies have a way of clearing the mind of all distractions, and she appreciates how clearly it crystallizes her attentions and reactions. Salabounis finds that one of the most reliable tests of her nursing acumen is how well she responds to patients at multiple levels of acuity who need things simultaneously, or in balancing the demands of different colleagues in the operating room.

Mary Salabounis is seen on Tiehack/buttermilk Mountain, Aspen, Colorado; Fall Hike on Tiehack overlooking the Maroon in Bells, Aspen, Colorado; seen above Sydney Harbor in Sydney, Australia.

“I know that if we have a situation going on or a patient going in, you turn all those other thoughts off,” she said. “You’re thinking about step one, step two, step three; who do I need to contact, what’s the priority? In the OR setting, you’re really in close collaboration with your anesthesia provider, who is 50 percent of the equation; the other 50 percent is the surgeon. Working with both of them simultaneously, and communicating with your scrub tech to seamlessly make their orders happen while it’s all going on at once, you’re synthesizing all this information coming to you and providing care in the best way that you know how.”

Coming to nursing later in life has its benefits as well, Salabounis said. In the operating room, where a nursing professional must be able to have the confidence of his or her convictions, age has allowed her to keep from being easily intimidated. She entered the field with a variety of problem-solving experiences from a previous career. Even enrolling in nursing school as a change-of-life student gave her a level of comfort in the classroom that her classmates didn’t necessarily possess.

“Any life experience brings confidence,” Salabounis said. “I wasn’t quite as fearful of tests; I wasn’t as burdened by homework. I knew I had a solid goal. I had been in the working world for a time. With changing technology and advancing disease processes, nursing is something that I will always continue to learn to stay current with my career and to enhance myself as a person and a nurse.”

“Career change can be inspiring,” she said. “If you don’t have that calling in your initial time in college, don’t be afraid to change. Nursing programs are very accommodating. It’s a second chance to have a great career.”

Some lessons aren’t learned in the classroom, however: the way it feels to comfort a nervous patient, or the look of relief on the face of a frightened patient who opens his or her eyes to find a procedure has been completed. In those moments, Salabounis finds the ability to take pride in her work, “because even though you’re getting paid, you’re still making a difference in someone’s life.”

“Even though it’s technically my job, I get to secretly know that I made somebody comfortable; that I kept them safe,” she said. “It’s very satisfying.”