NURSE VS. WILD
By: Lanier Norville
Paul Lamb, RN, loves the Big Sky Country. Born in Missoula, Mont., Lamb grew up hiking, fishing, biking and skiing. He attended high school and college in California, but he was eager to move back to his homeland.
The big Sky Country is just so – there’s just so much open space, Lamb says.
Lamb works as an RN at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, Mont., just 50 miles from the Canadian border. He regularly rides the 30-mile bicycle trail from his house to Glacier National Park, the centerpiece of a region of protected land in the Rocky Mountains bordering Alberta and British Columbia that spans more than 1,000,000 acres. “It’s kind of the end of the road,” he says, an ideal home base for an avid outdoor explorer.
“That’s a lot of the reason I wanted to be a nurse,” Lamb says. “You can go anywhere and get a decent wage and flexible hours.”
“But you have to be flexible too.”
When he started college, Lamb didn’t expect to go into the medical field. He began his sophomore year as a History major at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., with plans to become a teacher. But after a little bit of first-hand experience, his plans changed. “I was doing my student teaching, and I couldn’t stand my (5th grade) kids.”
In winter, they ski. in spring and fall, they road and mountain bike, and in summer, they hike in glacier National park.
Lamb had taken an EMT class the year prior in school. “I really liked that, because in the dorm I lived in we did rock climbing and outdoor activities, so being an EMT made a lot of sense.”
From the start, Lamb found medicine exciting. EMTs-in-training are required to observe in the emergency room. His first night in the ER, a patient arrived who had been run over by a sheep, and another suffered cardiac arrest. “It was really interesting,” he says.
Lamb worked as an EMT in the local ER to help pay for his last two years of college. Unlike his brief stint as a student teacher, there were no unpleasant surprises to be discovered on the job. “After about a year and a half, I decided I’d go into nursing,” he says.
After graduation, Lamb and his wife Jill moved to Bozeman, Mont., where Lamb worked as an EMT and Jill as a clerk. Less than a year later, both were accepted into nursing school at Miles Community College, east of Billings in Miles City. “We sold everything we had in Bozeman and moved on.” Both received their associate’s degrees in nursing and took jobs at area hospitals.
But the couple was looking for more recreational opportunities, so they applied for jobs in Whitefish, home to a ski resort and close to several lakes, as well as Lamb’s job as a scrub nurse and Jill’s as an ob-gyn nurse. In winter, they ski. In spring and fall, they road and mountain bike, and in summer, they hike in Glacier National Park. Lamb also judges Telemark, a variation of the alpine ski race, and competes in 24-hour mountain biking relays.
Lamb takes advantage of his on-call hours by hitting the trail. “I’ve got a cloverleaf of paths around here that I ride on my road bike, so I’ll just go out 20 or 25 minutes and come back, and I also have loops I can do,” rather than the more remote rides he prefers during his time off. “A couple times I’ve been called back at the very end of my leash, and you just put the hammer down and go as fast as you can,” he says.
He shares his lust for the outdoors with his coworkers in the OR at North Valley Hospital, where he was once a nurse manager. After 10 years in the role, “I got tired,” Lamb recalls. The birds’ eye view of a management position allowed Lamb to identify his true passion as a scrub nurse. Lamb is hands-on at heart: Off the clock, you’ll find him propelling himself up the steep bike paths leading up to Big Mountain or pulling a trout out of Whitefish lake. “Sometimes it’s like pulling in a boot,” he says. The ones I usually catch are probably about as long as your forearm; the bigger ones are 28 to 36 inches.
During his tenure as manager, Lamb continued to seek hands-on experiences, taking call hours when time allowed. In doing so, “I identified what I really liked, and that was scrubbing,” Lamb says. “That’s what I wanted to preserve, so in order to do that I stepped away” from management. Lamb hired a nurse from Houston who interviewed so well, Lamb offered him the management position. “It was a win-win.”
Lamb wants other nurses to know that there is life after management. “Some may see stepping down as failing as a manager – that they’ve given all they could and it wasn’t good enough,” he says. But there are almost always myriad reasons for making the switch. Three of the nurses who work in Lamb’s OR were once managers.
Ultimately, Lamb was attracted to the challenge and the variety that scrubbing in the OR brings. Last month, Lamb worked on a robotic prostate surgery case, assisted a total knee replacement, and cleaned endoscopes in the endoscopy suite, all in the same week. “I go from being the robot nurse and the total joint nurse to being the endoscopy cleaning nurse,” he says.
Sometimes, the challenges aren’t just technical. “There is the challenge of being in a situation where you think you’d rather not be there,” Lamb says. Those situations have bred strength and perseverance into his character. During difficult situations, Lamb thinks of the serenity prayer, which is also known as the nurse’s prayer. “The development of the spiritual life is a good foundation,” he says.
Lamb has enjoyed helping student nurses develop those traits. One of his colleagues is an instructor at a nearby nursing program, and Lamb offered to help train student nurses. Students visit the OR in his facility on clinical rotation, and he also helps train scrub tech students who come to the facility.
He offers his students one simple, yet poignant, piece of advice. “I would encourage student nurses to spend as much time as possible in the operating room.”
“I like teaching,” Lamb says. “I wish I could be a teacher, but going back to school would cut into my playing time.”