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Making a Career in Nursing

America's favorite nurse, Nurse Alice Benjamin, joins the show to discuss everything from making a career in nursing to the importance of medical literacy.

Watch the full episode below:

Here are the highlights from the episode:

| What does it take to become a nurse?


Yes, well thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here and I'm very passionate about being a nurse. 24 years later, same passion, same fire. I was actually inspired to become a nurse because of my dad. My dad was a retired service person. He's in the Navy. And at those times they would say, "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," so he would go on a smoking breaks. So he picked up that habit, which we know develops, put you at risk for high blood pressure, then you have strokes and heart attacks, and a multitude of things can happen with your health. And as the eldest, I found myself helping my mother take care of my father. Ultimately, my dad died of a massive heart attack. And even as a teenager, kind of, just helping my mom getting bits and pieces of the story, I could sense a real disconnect from what my parents understood about my dad's conditions.

When we would go to the hospital, I just really felt this disconnect, and my family really never, even my dad as the patient, didn't really understand everything that was going on. But fast forward, when he died of a massive heart attack in the emergency room, and by that time I was entering college in pre-nursing courses and I made a commitment. I said, "You know what, I'm gonna be the best cardiac nurse in the world, so I am going to fix systems and processes to bridge this gap between providers and patients so patients really understand what's happening and to get on that preventative side." So it's not just trying to put out fires, but how do we get people to make better and healthier choices at home, get access to quality healthcare and do those things so they don't end up in the emergency room. so they don't unexpectedly lose their father to a heart attack and things like that. So that's where I started and fast forward, everything I did in nursing, I was focused on critical care, emergency medicine, cardiovascular health, anything and everything related to those things, I absorbed it like a sponge. And I did a lot of volunteer work with the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, getting out into communities.

So it's really, it's good to have a clinic and a hospital where people can go to for care, but we know not everyone has access to quality healthcare. Some people are afraid to go, so let's meet them where they are, and let's incorporate, I think I knew about health literacy before was a thing and getting out to the communities to really just talk to people about taking something that they do and just putting a little spin on it so it's a little healthier, and so I've dedicated my career to that. And while I was helping people in the community, I realized that some of my colleagues probably could stand to be a little more sharp in perhaps our assessment skills or jumping into action, looking to see what are the issues, how can we prevent things from happening? 'Cause I would hear the word non-compliance a lot. And I really don't like that word, because for a variety of reasons, people may not take their medications or go to their doctor's appointments. They don't have a car. They ran out of money 'cause they're on a fixed income. They didn't understand. So I like to use the word nonadherent. So I also, as I progressed through my career, became an advanced practice nurse times two. I'm a clinical nurse specialist and an advanced practice nurse and a nurse practitioner, so I actually teach nurses and some residents entering into critical care in cardiology. So I've always loved to teach.

| How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted nurses


Yes, and thanks for asking that question because when COVID was just starting and we were getting an inkling that something was coming, we weren't quite shut down yet, but I had just finished my nurse practitioner program, and I could see the changes that were happening in school because now we wanted people to social distance. We couldn't be too many people in one place. So it really impacted how we taught in nursing school. So several nursing programs were impacted, and then when it came to work, the biggest need was for COVID-related care. However, the nurses in the hospital, cause before I work, I wear multiple hats, so I'm still in the hospital too.

The ER and the ICU I think, were hit the hardest first, and then it was just overflowing with patients with COVID. So those very, very sick patients end up spilling out into the general wards and nurses who never had touched a ventilator were having to be quickly trained. Okay, we're gonna do a morning, 30 minute inservice, this is how you manage a ventilator, go. That can be very scary for someone. 'Cause the last you wanna do is to harm someone or not know what to do when someone's sick. But I mean, there were more patients, we've never seen this volume. I think most hospitals, for the most part, keep about a 75, 80% capacity of what they're capable of. We were well beyond that, we had patients, we had opened up cafeterias, had beds in there. We had cleared parking lots, pitched tents. We had patients there. We had conference rooms, patients were in there. We had every single ventilator. We would run out ventilators. I remember several times we ran out of ventilators and here we are, "Code blue," here comes a patient to our ICU. We don't have a ventilator. So me and another nurse are taking turns, bagging someone because we don't have a ventilator.

We run out medicines and we didn't know what we were dealing with early on. It was like fighting the Invisible Man. And we too are patients, we're health consumers too. So we are here to take care of people, but we too were also afraid of what would happen, and we had a shortage of protective equipment, PPE. We were being limited to here's one N95 for the week, make it last, and we were reusing equipment. So it was very troubling times where we were frustrated, we were scared, we were overwhelmed. We didn't have enough resources, and I have to say, there are many nurses because of that experience who left nursing. They're like, "I don't wanna do this anymore. This is no longer fun." And not that taking care of someone in ICU is fun, but, we were being told that we were on the front lines of healthcare, that we were being soldiers.

I don't think nurses, we didn't sign up for the military, we signed up to be nurses. And so it was just a real scary time. And we had a lot of colleagues as well as patients die, and that was very traumatic because although in healthcare, nurses, we encounter death, not at the volume that we were seeing. It was actually so disheartening. Our morgues were full. Mortuaries were too full to take care of patients. They rolled in big truckers, big trucks where we were making makeshift morgues. It was very sad. It was very sad, and patients...

| Is it worse to be a nurse right now?


See you're asking someone who's always glass is half full, so I'm optimistic. Now, I will say it's been some very trying times, but I think because so many things have changed and moved, it's an excellent time to create a solution to the several problems that you have now. There's so many problems going on that if nurse, many nurses have actually looked at, they've become more entrepreneurs. They've expanded outside of the hospital. So I'm gonna say this, for nursing, if anything, it's opened nurses, it's opened the eyes of many nurses to recognize and all of the wonderful things that they can do. I don't necessarily have to work at a hospital. I can work at a clinic.

I can open my own business. I can work contract, which I will say by the way, although we have travel agencies that contract these travel nurses and staffing agencies that fill the needs of hospitals, my forecast is that nurses will learn how to contract individually with hospitals. I think that's going to happen, but I don't think it's a bad time to be a nurse. This is actually a great time to get in, 'cause the demand is high. We need nurses. So if you are looking for a job, listen, there's plenty of work for you. You're not gonna be out of work and you're gonna have plenty of places to choose from because no one, no one has enough nurses.



CareTalk is a weekly podcast that provides an incisive, no B.S. view of the US healthcare system. Join co-hosts John Driscoll (CEO, CareCentrix) and David Williams (President, Health Business Group) as they debate the latest in US healthcare news, business and policy.


Alice Benjamin is a board-certified Clinical Nurse Specialist and Family Nurse Practitioner. She has extensive nursing experience specializing in cardiovascular health, critical care, and emergency medicine. She has worked at some of the world's most prestigious academic tertiary centers as well as some of the most underserved community hospitals taking care of some of the sickest patients on the planet.

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