Pamela Davis will be the first to tell you she’s not a typical 61-year-old. An assistant head nurse at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, she’s at the point in her career where she knows “a lot of nurses are probably still looking for jobs.”
But for a surgical nurse of nearly 40 years, Davis has found that the richness of a career in health care extends beyond what you can learn in a hospital, and how it informs the life that you lead when you’re ready to transition to a new phase.
“I love nursing,” Davis said. “It’s the most rewarding career that anyone can hold. God bless anyone who’s going into the field.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Davis worked at Lincoln Hospital (now Lincoln Medical Center) on Bruckner Boulevard as a teenaged candy striper. She remembers working in a neonatal pediatric area, making beds and taking care of babies. Her mother used to talk to her about nursing because she’d always wanted to be a nurse herself. Those career dreams never came to fruition – mom instead became a caregiver and worked to send money home to her siblings in North Carolina – but after Davis excelled in a health care elective in high school, she started to think more seriously about making a career of it.
She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Hunter College in Manhattan. The university was affiliated with nearby Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the country. After graduating in January 1980, her first assignment was a med-surg unit at Roosevelt Hospital (now Mt. Sinai). When they weren’t training any new OR nurses, Davis ended up at Beth Israel, now Mount Sinai Beth Israel, two years later. By the end of 2019, she’ll officially retire from that health system, where she’s worked ever since.
After nearly four decades in nursing, Davis has a perspective that spans technological and clinical eras in the field.
“Things were not as advanced as they are now,” she remembers. “We weren’t doing laparoscopic procedures; we weren’t doing robotic procedures. Back then, if you had your gallbladder removed, you had an abdominal incision. That does not happen now. With three ports, your gallbladder can be removed, and you can go home the same day, pain-free.”
Documentation is another key difference. In the 1980s, Davis can remember surgical notes being made much more sparsely; today, data is tracked digitally, from preoperative contact to recovery. In some ways, she worries that these responsibilities take away from staff having more meaningful interactions with patients; relieving anxiety and preparing them for surgery.
These days, Davis has access to a key advancement from years ago: the “time-out” process, which empowers any member of the surgical team to halt any procedure about which he or she has a concern. Throughout her career, she’s always been a patient advocate, but the time-out policy has helped give her a voice in the room.
Prior to outpatient procedures, staff identify patients by name and vital information, identify themselves and their roles in the procedure, and ask about any patient concerns. If, during the procedure, anyone on the team sees something that’s not correct, they’re obliged to stop and call a time-out, and ask, “Can we do something different?” she said. The same happens during debriefing, when staff review procedures, specimen and urine output, equipment malfunctions, and ask whether there’s anything they could’ve done better.
Davis understands the “time-out” as a piece of “a broad spectrum of the whole process,” and as a dedication to continuous performance improvement.
“I think it’s good to have that collaborative effort on all the different crews that are working together,” she said. “You will have the anesthesiologist, the doctor, the resident, the scrub techs, the nurse, and anyone else who’s in the room; the radiologist if the patient has to have an X-ray. All these things are involved in that process because if there’s something that could be done better, you will know about it.”
It’s the same kind of advice Davis said she would give to a younger nurse: make the patient your priority in every circumstance, advocate for their well-being, and don’t hesitate to call out issues of concern.
“The patient is the priority no matter what,” Davis said. “If you see something, say something. If you feel something’s not right, you stand your ground. If you have a gut feeling that something’s not right, you have to seek advice. You’re usually correct that it was not right.”
Although many younger nurses have described having confrontational relationships with their veteran superiors, Davis said she prefers to embrace rather than eat the young. As she prepares to leave the field, she’s telling her younger counterparts to continue to advance their education, and her peers in leadership to continue to support them with the skills and knowledge they’ve developed over the years.
“Anything you can offer a new nurse is going to benefit a patient,” Davis said. “I was an educator and I’m still an educator. I was an assistant head nurse for maybe 30 years; my specialties were urology and robotics. Any nurse that would come into the OR, I would train them in those specialties.”
“I think education is power,” she said. “You don’t have to stop at a BSN; you can go into a Phd.D. Nursing is so diverse, you can do whatever you want and be successful.”
When she finally hangs up her scrubs for the last time, Davis isn’t sure what she’ll do next. In 2005, she earned a legal nurse consultant certificate from Hofstra, so she could pursue risk management or consulting. She has four grandchildren and a mother with whom she is very close, so much of her retirement is already spoken for on the family front. Davis is also politically minded and plans to organize voters to be registered and make their way to the polls.
“I love life,” she said. “I enjoy people’s company. I enjoy great conversations.
I have a passion for nursing. I’m sorry that I’m leaving the career after 40 years, but I think that it is time for me to go and take care of myself and spend more time with my family.”
“I want to give my hat to a younger nurse; give them a chance,” she said. “Hopefully, somebody’s going to follow in Pamela Davis’s steps: ‘I remember when she taught me this,’ and, ‘I remember when she said you can’t do that.’ That’s hopefully what would become of my legacy in the nursing career.”