On the Other Side of the Rails


Still a Nurse: An Unexpected Journey of Hope Part I

Deb Jeffries MSN-Ed, CEN, CPEN, TCRN, FAEN

Still a Nurse: An Unexpected Journey of Hope Part I

The Beginning

After entering the world of emergency care, it does not take long for a nurse to learn that this specialty often costs the nurse almost as much as they earn. This is the “blood, sweat, and tears” of what we do. The intensity of emergency nursing is seemingly never-ending as we manage one unstable patient after another; some live, some die, some give birth, and some experience a catastrophic life-altering illness or injury. Through all of this, one question most nurses do not ask is “What would it be like if I became a patient with a serious or life-threatening illness?”

In May of 2015, I developed a cough and went to see my PCP not expecting to be diagnosed with pertussis. I was astonished because I was fully immunized, having received a t-dap immunization a few years prior. Little did I know that pertussis was a precursor to a much more serious condition. I was treated conventionally with several courses of antibiotics, yet the cough lingered. Speaking without coughing became very difficult, several months later a mass was found in my mediastinum. I deteriorated over the next 6 months, experiencing severe weight loss, loss of appetite, daily afternoon fevers, profound fatigue, and a hemoglobin which hovered between 7 and 10 g/dl. And of course, the cough…always the cough.

Perhaps you have already diagnosed me, but several biopsies were benign. Due to ongoing evidence that I was actively dying, the decision was made in March 2016 to perform a video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) procedure. After 5 days in ICU – 9 months after the initial manifestation of my symptoms – I was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer. Even though it was abundantly clear to me and everyone who knew me that I had cancer somewhere, hearing the words “You have cancer” was still devastating. I was left with a sense of dread that is impossible to define. What if I had been diagnosed 9 months earlier when the symptoms started? The worst part is, I did all the right things; my husband and I were advocates for me and my care, yet finding an answer still took 9 months.

I was scheduled for a left pneumonectomy within weeks, but I deteriorated so quickly they were unable to perform the surgery. I was transferred to the ICU at my cancer center for emergency radiation (I didn’t even know that was a “thing”) as my airway was nearly completely occluded, and I was in respiratory failure. Chemotherapy was started at the same time. My condition was very labile and more than once my family was at my bedside expecting that I would not survive much longer. I remember my only sister coming close to me and gently saying, “You have to fight, I can’t make it without you.” Since I could barely speak, I whispered as forcefully as I could, “I am fighting!”

Throughout this experience, I frequently perceived the professionals taking care of me as minimizing my concerns and symptoms. Sometimes I wanted to shout at them, “Don’t speak to me as if I don’t have a brain, I am an ENPC and TNCC course director, an instructor for ACLS, PALS, and BLS, but most importantly, I am an emergency nurse! I know what I am talking about, listen to me!

I clearly remember being so discouraged and wondering whether I was even still a nurse. None of my credentials, training, or knowledge seemed to matter anymore. I had become just another faceless patient.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series:
Still a Nurse: An Unexpected Journey of Hope Part II
Nursing 101: Does it Matter?

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Guest Contributor

Megan Doede
Deb Jeffries MSN-Ed., CEN, CPEN, TCRN, FAEN

Deb has been an emergency nurse for 38 years and was recently inducted as a Fellow in the Academy of Emergency Nursing (class of 2021) for her enduring and substantial contributions to emergency nursing. She is certified in emergency nursing (CEN), pediatric emergency nursing (CPEN), and trauma emergency nursing (TCRN). Additionally, she is an ACLS, PALS, and BLS instructor.

Improving the knowledge and skills of nurses caring for pediatric patients is an area she has been passionate about for many years. She has been an ENPC instructor for approximately 9 years and a course director for approximately 5 years. Deb recently co-authored the book Rapid Access Guide for Pediatric Emergencies: Providing Expert Nursing Care as a resource for nurses to use at the bedside.1 Deb has been committed to the standardization of the care provided to children for emergency nurses especially in general population emergency departments. She has also done podium presentations, podcasts, and webinars on the care of children experiencing an emergency.

Deb has been involved in trauma education for trauma and emergency nurses for decades. She has been a TNCC instructor for approximately 9 years and a course director for approximately 6 years. She was selected for a Poster Presentation for the 2021 Trauma Center Association of America (TCAA) national conference for the project spearheaded at a Level 1 (ACS) trauma center: ATCN and TNCC: Are They Enough? Innovation, Interaction, and Intentionality in Delivering Trauma Orientation Education for Nursing Staff.

In addition to these accomplishments, Deb has made a significant impact on the advancement of emergency nursing. She dedicated much of her career to clinical education in the emergency setting and has contributed globally to the standardization, process throughput, and implementation of best-practices for emergency department triage. She is a passionate advocate for standardization of the triage process and education and has provided triage education nationally and internationally.

1. Jeffries D, Visser L. Rapid Access Guide for Pediatric Emergencies. Springer Publishing; 2021.

How to contribute

We encourage submissions from any reader who has been touched by the healthcare system. Some contributors may be involved directly in patient care and might want to share the impact a patient, family, or colleague had on them. Others may want to write about life “on the other side of the rails” …those moments when the caregiver becomes the patient…or maybe sees healthcare from the vantage point of a family member. Inquiries can be sent to [email protected]

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