Denise Drinkhall

Flight Nurse
REACH 7 – Marysville, CA

The article below is provided to you courtesy of Denise Drinkhall, Flight Nurse, REACH 7 – Marysville, CA.

Bartending Medic to Nurse

I was a good bartender. I always poured a mean martini, had the gift of gab and could gently convince any patron that they had enough to drink. And yet I could still get left a tip. It was great money and all my friends hung out with me at work. But I knew one day I would burn out and need a REAL job.

Living in Tahoe, I randomly signed up for an EMT class (because knowing first aid is paramount) and volunteered for the local fire department. I realized going on calls 24/7 while being able to help the hurt and sick was awesome. I did a couple twelve hour shifts at the large hospitals in Reno and was smitten. From fireworks gone wrong to hypothermic teens, I felt like I saw it all. I was in love with the chaos and the fact that I got to DO something about it. When a pal suggested a paramedic course located only an hour away, I leapt at the idea.

I distinctly remember landing my first helicopter when I was a ground paramedic. I can recall the flight nurse’s face, what he said and the injuries to my patient. It all happened so fast. And when the helicopter lifted and I scraped the dirt off me, I had a giant grin on my face. I needed to do THAT.

I randomly applied to REACH Air Medical one day, confident that they would never hire me. I was sure I didn’t have enough experience. But they hired medics and I thought “At least I can learn what I need to work there ONE day. And maybe I’ll get a t-shirt”. When they called me the next day (after the all-day hiring board interview where I did, in fact, get my t-shirt) and offered me a job, I was stunned. There were tons of super smart paramedics that had been in the field a bajillion years. Why me? I asked. I was told: “We can teach you our protocols and standards, but we need someone that can ‘play well with others’, not be afraid to ask for help or allow themselves to think outside the box. We need someone who is an excellent communicator. We need someone who will always do what is right for the patient.” Really? Help the patient? Outside the box? Communicate? That I can do. That is all me.

My first day of ground school they handed me a GIANT binder labeled: Nursing Standard of Care Protocols. I giggled nervously and told them they had it wrong: I was a paramedic, not a nurse. They smiled back and reminded me as a paramedic, I am still held to the same standard of care. I may not be pushing certain drugs or performing a certain skill set, but I would maybe one day be precepting a new nurse and needed to know it. All. I became tachycardic. Diaphoretic. Tad dizzy. I was in over my head.

There was absolutely a huge learning curve. Ventilators? Lab values? There was so much additional medical knowledge I had to absorb. I had to learn so much WHILE landing on freeways and fields. I had to be the voice of reason on an MCI while assisting an RSI and load a patient into a running helicopter. Entering a sending ICU and having the nurse say “thank goodness REACH is here” was fantastically overwhelming. A nurse would look at my name tag and be happy. I was a paramedic. But I could change vent settings to make my patient less sick and they were impressed. Maybe I did know some stuff.

Someone told me that after a year I would feel more comfortable. I recall charting about a year after an inter-facility transport and discussing our patient care during the flight with my partner. Something clicked. I did know what I was doing. Of course, I had tons to learn but I felt at home. As the years passed, I continued to questions my partners. “Why did we start that medication?” “Why did seeing that elevated lab value make your eyebrows lift so high?” “Why did you call the receiving doctor to ask to start that particular medication?” I was so curious and desperate to know more. And after 5 years of working for REACH Air Medical Services, including 3 years of impatiently sitting on multiple nursing school wait lists, I was accepted. And magically, not only to nursing school, but to the first paramedic to nurse bridge program in California.

I could write pages upon pages on my schooling experience, but suffice to say I graduated. I was petrified. A nurse? Me? I had studied, tested, learned, trained, medicated and did what was right for the patient. Wasn’t that what I had been doing as a paramedic? I was panicked once again. What was different? Wasn’t I the same paramedic I had been but now with a piece of paper that said nursing degree? I got a job at a level II trauma center. I continued always flying with a nurse but now instead of asking questions, I explained out loud why we were doing what we doing. I “what if-ed” every call. I pretended all calls went wrong and took every situation to its worst scenario so I could feel prepared “in case”. It wasn’t in case the patient got sicker, I was preparing in case my partner wasn’t there. And I had to be the nurse. Oh. But, I was the nurse. Huh.

Fast forward three years. My ER has trained me to become an MICN, I studied and received my CEN and most recently, I’ve become charge nurse. Me? Charge nurse? These surprising life-cycles of responsibility keep coming. And I’m not sure what’s different. I still study, learn and train. I’m still always doing what’s right for patient. I still can out-communicate anyone. Yes, I have a broader medical base and WAY more “tools in my tool belt”, but I’m still the same person. I was fortunate enough to have come into my REACH career, a nursing program and an amazing hospital. I wake up every day stunned and excited that this is my life. I absolutely know oodles more than I did as a firefighter EMT in Tahoe. But I’ve also studied more, touched more patients and asked more questions. I consider myself an EMT turned firefighter turned paramedic turned nurse who has a lot more to learn. And…I can still make a wicked drink.