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Spotlight On: Dianna Copley

Dianna Copley’s nursing career has been one of continuous education, marked by an interest in caring for others, a wealth of positive mentors and a desire to remain close to her Ohio roots. 

Copley pursued a career in nursing directly out of high school, enrolling in an associate degree in nursing program at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. She graduated  in 2008 and started at Cleveland Clinic − the only place she’d wanted to work. In the same month she started her nursing practice, Copley also began the course of study for her bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Akron.

 “I didn’t apply for a lot of positions,” Copley said. “I was hoping that I would get a job in the surgical intensive care unit, where I’d wanted to work.”

During her associate degree program, Copley had worked in a much lower-acuity ICU; at the Cleveland Clinic, her patients were much sicker than she’d expected, but she thrived because the unit there functioned with “phenomenal” teamwork. Copley so appreciated its camaraderie and professionalism, that after completing her bachelor’s degree in May 2010, she chose to remain with the unit.

“I think the teamwork’s really what makes that unit,” Copley said. “Even the days where I wasn’t quite sure and had a lot of questions, I knew somebody was going to be there to answer them.” 

Copley eventually took a PRN position as she began to explore the next steps in her professional education. Her interest in bringing evidence-based medicine to the bedside practice led her into a master’s degree program at Kent State University, which she completed in 2015. Subsequently, Copley began working as a clinical nurse specialist in the hospital medicine service line at the main Cleveland Clinic campus in Cleveland, Ohio. 

“I felt like medical-surgical nursing was the place I wanted to grow in,” she said. “It was a transition.”

Her first few months as a CNS were difficult; with a background in critical care, Copley hardly felt like an expert clinician out of the gate. But with the support of her med/surg nursing colleagues, she soon found her footing. Their support reinforced the feelings Copley had held about the value of mentorship in developing novice nurses.

“I think people who are willing to mentor you, if you do the work, absolutely change careers,” she said. “I became a CNS because I had had wonderful mentors; at the time, I didn’t know much about the role. You stay clinically relevant, but you have the ability to affect system outcomes for patients.”

In 2020, a position in the surgical ICU opened up when one of her mentors retired, and Copley moved into the assignment, where she remains today. Returning to a surgical environment was exciting, she said; her absence solidified how much Copley truly had missed it. 

“I think the time away taught me a lot,” she said. “I have an appreciation for other specialties that I think I gained in that role, but I’m happy to be back in the SICU.”

In addition to her current responsibilities, Copley has dedicated herself to professional projects, including a part-time role as a nursing ethics faculty fellow. In 2020, she completed a Doctorate of Nursing Practice from Case Western University, and began exploring the intersection of nursing and ethics. Copley views her work as an extension of supporting clinical nurses in the  areas of workplace violence, “second victim” phenomenon, and other questions of moral distress. Her interest in these issues has been borne out by her own personal experiences as well as studying those of her peers in the field.

Workplace violence in health care can include verbal intimidation, harassment or physical altercations involving patients, visitors and staff. The issue became much more pronounced during the stresses of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Copley said; learning to identify and de-escalate such circumstances has been a focus of her studies. 

“We understand that nobody wants to be in the hospital,” she said. “People are already under additional stress, additional emotions. We understand when people get upset. When the upset becomes threats, that’s not acceptable. When a nurse is afraid to go into a room because they don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s not acceptable.”

“Second victim” phenomenon involves experiences that health care providers have after an adverse or unanticipated clinical event or health care error; as Copley describes it, “It’s usually associated with things that didn’t go the way we thought they would.” But when professionals continue to replay such incidents in their head, thinking about what could have gone differently, they can be consumed by doubt. Some can spiral emotionally after such an incident, eventually leaving the profession, or even self-harming. In response, Copley is helping to train peer supporters across the system so that any caregiver experiencing feelings of second victimhood can find support.

“I want to be improving the role of the clinical nurse in health care,” she said. “We have to look at how we support nurses doing the work they do, especially in the hospital ICU setting.” 

“We see a lot of the patients coming in with one expectation: [that] they’ll undergo surgery because they’re hoping for an improvement in their quality of life, or maybe a cure,” Copley said. “You’re balancing wanting to help maintain hope for that patient, but also recognizing that there are limitations to what we can do in health care.”

“We’re learning who they are through their surrogate decision-makers; trying to talk to them to get a sense of who the patient was prior to their illness, what their values were, so we can honor that to the fullest extent possible,” she said. “We’re trying to help the patient get back to that goal.”

When she’s not at work, Copley and her husband enjoy as much time outside as they can get. They enjoy camping, boating, dirt biking and hiking with their two mini dachshunds. 

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