By Matt Skoufalos
Renee Pink’s career in health care began with a turn in the U.S. Army back in 1988. Stationed in Germany, Pink became a surgical technician, and liked it so much she took up the career in civilian life, too. After she returned to the United States, where she was married, Pink landed a position at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD). She loved the work; “couldn’t believe they were paying me to do the job,” but knew she wanted more.
“The nurses that ran the OR, I tried to do what they were doing,” she said. “It was just embedded in me to do right for the patient.”
So, while working as a transplant technician — and against the advice of her supervisors and colleagues — Pink enrolled in nursing school. She recalls a sense of destiny at the move; a feeling that she said was undiminished when she finally graduated nursing school and told her manager that she wanted to join the nursing staff in the operating room.
“They don’t like new grads in the OR,” Pink said. “They say you have to go to the floor, but I had it. I was already there.”
However, “my manager at the time was not buying into it,” she said.
Pink was told she would be doing a disservice to herself and to her career by going from a technician position to being an OR nurse; that she would be mortgaging her future for a youthful whim. But the transplant nurses rallied around Pink and signed a petition on her behalf … and she found herself in her manager’s office once more.
“She said, ‘I’m sick of hearing your name. I’m going to send you to the OR class against my wishes,’ ” Pink recalled. “I said, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity.’ ”
At the time, Pink said, it would otherwise have been impossible for her to be recommended to the OR training program, which she described as an ad hoc curriculum developed jointly by a group of local hospitals as an effort to combat a regional shortage of nurses trained in OR-specific skills. Pink was the only surgical technician enrolled in the program. She was also a mother to two children, newly divorced, and continued to work full-time throughout the class.
“You either had to be an OR technician by trade who went to nursing school, or you had to have been an OR nurse that was out of the field for maybe five or six years and using it as a refresher course,” Pink said. “No one had transitioned from a tech to a nurse at UCSD.”
“That was 15 years ago,” she said. “I’m finishing my master’s degree now.”
When she finally got the chance to work the job for which she’d fought so hard, Pink said she blossomed. She embraced her role as a patient champion, and eventually rose to become a clinical coordinator for transplantation and vascular services in her hospital. Ever the self-starter, Pink took it upon herself to improve processes in her department that she noticed as lacking, first initiating conversations with her peers and superiors, then starting to outline protocol revisions and, finally, calling regular team meetings to discuss ways to refine the group approach. Eventually, she said, even the doctors started looking forward to them.
“I started organizing meetings with the surgeons, with pharmacy, with anesthesia, to collaborate with disciplines that would aid in transplant,” she said. “I would set up a PowerPoint presentation: ‘This is what we’re doing today; these are the problems that I’ve noticed.’ ”
One of the more revolutionary notions Pink had was to shift the focus of kidney donations at UCSD to being recipient-driven instead of donor-driven. She questioned whether the processes around transplantation could be synchronized to more effectively connect the recipients and donors throughout the procedures — a suggestion, she noted, that would be more closely aligned with the goals of the hospital to be a family-centered institution.
“The families were disconnected,” Pink said. “We had a healthy donor in the room taking out a kidney. The recipient was still in pre-op; they had just drawn his labs. Now we’re taking out this kidney, and we have to put this patient on dialysis. Why don’t we do the labs together, do the pre-op together, bring the families together?”
Pink found an advocate for her ideas in a doctor on her surgical team, and then she had the support she needed to pitch the idea to the director of nursing. With that buy-in, the rest all fell into place. But Pink still had to contend with questions as to why she was the one agitating for so much to change.
“At the time, they considered me the baby nurse because I went from tech to nurse,” she said. “The little nurse’s voice was heard.”
Pink eventually codified her approach to patient services around a transplant procedure in a handbook she created herself. Today, she said, her fellow nurses swear by it, and told her that when she was away on vacation, its procedures helped them stay true to form. She appreciates the praise, but to be sure, her own internal motivations have helped her get along quite fine without it.
“This is something that I have been doing and I don’t consider it a job,” Pink said. “If it’s your vision, you really have to stay true to it. People may knock you at first, but if you stay true, they will eventually follow.”