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by Megan Flaherty
August 27, 1998
Illustration by Malcolm Garris/PhotoDisc
You only have one career. But you may have more options about what to do with it than you think. In rising numbers, nurses are putting their talents and skills to use in nontraditional settings. As they expand their horizons, nurses are becoming as indispensable to businesses and congregations as they have been to hospitals and clinics.
Some nurses are forced to explore nontraditional career alternatives because of an injury or downsizing. Some need more flexible schedules to accommodate family life. Others just want a new challenge. Whatever their reasons, nurses are generally well-equipped for new career adventures. "Nurses can do anything because they've got so many skills and talents," said Cindy Bennett, RN, a career coach and part-time home health coordinator from Encinitas.
Still a nurse
Nurses who take the plunge into a new field may struggle to redefine themselves. That's because many only see themselves as nurses if they are working in the traditional clinical setting, said Donna Cardillo, RN, of Wall, N. J., who conducts seminars on career alternatives for nurses and coaches nurses individually. Those nurses are limiting themselves, she believes.
"I try to give nurses an expanded view of who they are and how they fit into the healthcare system. It's our education, skills, and experiences, combined with our capacity to care and give, that makes us nurses, not where we work and whether we wear a uniform or scrubs to work," Cardillo said. "We're vital at the bedside, but just as vital in every other aspect of the healthcare arena." For example, nurses can have an impact working in utilization review, case management, the pharmaceutical industry, research, training, informatics, and forensic nursing, she said.
Nurses' experience allows them to maintain a central identity as a nurse, said Laura Mahlmeister, PhD, RN, who owns a consulting firm and is an acute care staff nurse at San Francisco General Hospital Birth Center. For example, nurses who design durable medical equipment or consult with attorneys on health-related legal cases are nowhere near patients, but their years of patient care experience and technical knowledge make them experts. "You may not have anything to do with direct patient care, but still retain that persona [of a nurse] because it was what you were as a nurse that makes you valuable in this new role," Mahlmeister said. When nurses move to jobs outside the hospital, they are often stunned that they're receiving equal or better pay, but don't have to work weekends and holidays, she added.
But there are drawbacks to encouraging nurses to explore career alternatives not directly related to patient care, according to Gladys Campbell, MSN, RN, immediate past president of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. "If everybody is looking for an alternative, then who takes care of the patients?" she said. Workplaces need to address quality of life issues for nurses so those who love working with patients don't have to leave the bedside to find a balance between work, their health, and their families, Campbell said.
Change for the better
Many nurses who make a major career change are happy with the results. Patricia Curran, an RN from Baltimore, worked in hospital and home care settings for most of her 26-year career. It was only after 25 years, when she started working as a maternity case manager for FutureHealth, a disease management firm in Timonium, Md., that she felt she was using the skills she learned in nursing school. In her new job, she creates care plans for pregnant women, coordinates care from the beginning of their pregnancies through their deliveries, and helps patients to be self-sufficient. Curran says she can create a bond with the patient that she never could in other settings, where the care was fragmented. "The frustrating part of nursing is taken away," she said.
Thom Golden, an RN who owns Doctor Baby Proofer in Dallas, is similarly satisfied with his nontraditional career. Golden sells products to make homes safe for babies--like outlet safety devices and gates for staircases--and goes into the field to baby proof homes, physician offices, and daycare centers. He also conducts baby-proofing seminars. "I love it," said Golden, a critical care and intensive care nurse and home health nursing director before launching his business 13 years ago. Pediatric trauma cases had a big influence on what he's doing now. "I'm not doing intervention work anymore; it's all prevention."
Pulled to the community
Donna Frank, RN, has also found her calling. Frank, who has worked in cardiac critical care and rehab and as a case manager, is now a parish nurse in Havertown, Pa. Frank spends her days at one of the two churches she works for, at parishioners' homes, or in the community answering medical questions, setting up health screenings, and helping people understand their insurance. "All nursing is meaningful, and we all find our special niche. For me it's being out in the community and practicing holistic nursing," Frank said.
Parish nursing is just part of the trend toward delivering health care where people congregate naturally, said Ruth D. Berry, MSN, RN, assistant professor of community health nursing at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing in Lexington. Her students realize they are likely to use their skills in homes, workplaces, schools, and many other settings, Berry said. "They're very inventive about finding out where nursing can actually be of help," said Berry, who manages and staffs a clinic for the homeless as well as coordinating parish nursing.
Nurses often underestimate their skills and value to employers, and because of this they may be fearful of making career changes, according to career coaches. They shouldn't be, Bennett said. After all, they have skills that are extremely valuable, both in and out of health care. Their strengths may include the ability to handle multiple tasks, react quickly, think under pressure, understand the big picture, manage people, and resolve conflict, Bennett said. Nurses also tend to be diplomatic, resourceful, great teachers, and skillful listeners.
You've just got to take the skills you've gathered so far in your career and reapply them to a new area, said Valycia M. Johnson, RN, a certified career coach from Orlando, Fla., who teaches a course on career alternatives for nurses through the Learning Annex and publishes a bimonthly journal called Options: The Journal of Nursing Career Alternatives. "You realize you're the same person in a different environment. You're taking this set of skills and transferring it," Johnson said.