Nancy Miller, a member of the Federation of Nurses/UFT, has worked at Staten Island University Hospital for 34 years, the last six in the post-anesthesia care unit at the hospital’s South site.
Tell me about your work.
I work the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. My job is to wake people up after they’ve had surgery, usually for the appendix, gall bladder or urological procedures. We have a checklist of vital signs, and they have to score high to be safely discharged to a hospital room or ambulatory care. I check their vital signs every 15 minutes, making sure they had no bad reaction to the anesthesia. Some people are nauseous. The first 15 minutes are the most critical. I connect them to all the monitors. We make sure their breathing has acclimated and their heart rate is OK. I also check their oxygen levels and blood pressure. I make sure their body temperature has stabilized — people can become hypothermic after surgery. I monitor the patient for up to 90 minutes, depending on the severity of the surgery.
What’s a typical day like?
Today I came in at 3 p.m. and there were eight surgeries winding down. From 6 to 11 p.m., I’m waiting for emergencies to come through. I am on call at least twice a week. Yesterday was my on-call night, when I have to be available and at the hospital within 30 minutes. At midnight, an emergency came in. I didn’t get home until 4 a.m. I do a Saturday-to-Sunday overnight shift twice a month as well.
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
The biggest challenge is the flow of patients. In an ideal world, the hospital staggers the surgeries, but it‘s unpredictable how much time each surgery will take. If there are complications in a surgery, a half-hour procedure can take two hours.
What’s not understood about your work?
We’re in an area where things are done to help people feel better. It’s kind of upbeat. In my unit, you spend a lot of time with patients and you bond with them. You learn how many children they have and what kind of work they do. Sometimes they receive good news. But we get a lot of cancer screenings that sometimes result in bad news. The doctor talks for five minutes and then is on to the next patient. The pathology report takes about two weeks, but meanwhile the patient has a million questions. They’re going to be going out of their mind for two weeks. We try to get them through the day.
What’s the hospital like as a workplace?
We’ve had a union contract since 1994. It gave us a voice to speak up and not be afraid because we have the union behind us. The union has empowered us to advocate for patient safety as well as nurse safety, in equipment and staffing ratios, and it enabled us to secure health benefits and a pension for members. When I started 34 years ago, we were a smaller, independent hospital and it has since taken on a more corporate structure — out of necessity, to survive. But our neighborhood mission is still standing. We are truly taking care of the neighborhood.
It can get very emotional because you’re taking care of people you know and their parents, their children and grandchildren. We have 235 nurses and under 100 beds. Each department is small, and everybody knows everybody. I can go around and greet all the staff by name. And because it’s so small, when we suffer a loss, it affects the entire hospital. One of our young nurses just died of breast cancer. We sold calendars with pictures of the staff and made a few thousand dollars for her funeral. We also had a bone-marrow drive for an employee’s child.
How did you get into nursing?
When I was 19 years old, my mom was in the intensive care unit after a car accident. I was visiting her every day. I had just finished my associate’s degree at the College of Staten Island, but I had no direction. I looked around and thought, “This is something I could do.” I was always good in biology. I went back to school and got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wagner College. I became a nurse in 1982. Nurses are the hands-on people. What a nurturing group they are. What a difference they make.
— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio