‘We used to be the doctor’s handmaiden’: Nurses share perspectives on career, future
Linda Busch has a plaque on the wall of her home. It reads, “If you save one life, you’re a hero. If you save 100 lives, you’re a nurse.”
Last week, health care workers celebrated National Nurses Week in honor of the millions of often-unsung heroes of health care.
In recognition of that work, we interviewed several active and retired nurses from the Quad Cities to talk about their experiences, perspective and wisdom they’ve gleaned from their years in the profession.
Linda Busch, a nurse and instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, started her career in 1981. At the time, male nurses were still almost unheard of, she said, and female nurses weren’t allowed to wear pants.
“We had dress scrubs,” she said. “And they were pink, of course.”
42 years later, nursing looks entirely different. For example, Busch said, there are more men in nursing, and more information is relayed electronically.
Over the course of her career, Busch worked as a registered nurse at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, she provided in-home care and for years worked at Nimiipuu Health in Lapwai.
“This was back before they had the [Nimiipuu Health] clinic,” she said. “We had one little trailer. And dental was in it, medical records was in it and X-ray was in it.”
Despite those limited means, she said, she loved the camaraderie among nurses, and the relationships she built with her patients.
“I just love the people,” she said.
When she’s teaching, she strongly advises students to use mistakes as a chance to learn, Busch said.
“If there is a mistake to be made, I have made it,” she said. “You just admit it, and go and take the lumps. […] That’s what I would tell everybody, is, ‘Keep going. You only get better.’”
For patients, a little appreciation toward nurses goes a long way, she said. Nurses often work hard dealing with people on their worst days and don’t always get the recognition they deserve.
“There was a nurse in the ER a couple of years back, and a truck driver had a bad wreck. She let [the driver] stay at her home and convalesce,” Busch said.
Stephanie Knewbow has been a nurse for roughly 20 years — but that wasn’t always her plan. She had intended to be a doctor until she got the chance to actually work in a hospital.
“After seeing the nurses there, I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Now, Knewbow works as the emergency department director at Pullman Regional Hospital. She’s also the recipient of this year’s Nurse Excellence Award at the hospital, which is based on nominations from other nurses.
Jeannie Eyler, chief clinical officer at Pullman Regional Hospital, said four or five different people nominated Knewbow. “Stephanie has created a department that really just has great communication, great teamwork skills. That’s the kind of environment you want in your patient care team.”
Saving lives and being there for patients when they need someone is the most fulfilling part of her job, Knewbow said.
“Say we had a code come in, and they survive. Obviously, that’s very rewarding,” she said. “Seeing little kids come in and just helping them, kind of comforting them during their visit, showing them that the hospital doesn’t have to be scary.”
Another big part of her job, Knewbow said, is training staff how to communicate with and deescalate patients. It’s a skill that’s grown even more important as the hospital sees an increasing number of ER visits related to mental health.
“Unless they’re in [the birth center], they’re probably not having a good day,” she said. “Most people don’t want to come to the hospital. So we try to make them feel as comfortable as they can. Like, we understand that.”
Knewbow said her connection with her patients has made a big impact in her life.
“I had a patient at a different hospital that I worked at, and he was probably like 85 or 90 and was having a heart attack,” she said. “Up until he died, he would send me a Christmas card and come visit me at the hospital all the time and bring me old pictures. I still talk to his wife.”
When Laura Rogers started her career in 1984, she said, few people recognized the work that nurses like her did in health care. Nurses, who were almost always women, were viewed more like assistants rather than health care professionals in their own right.
“We used to be the doctor’s handmaiden, basically. Getting his coffee and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “We do so many things on a daily basis that people don’t really see behind the scenes. … We do all the work.”
Over the years, Rogers, who recently retired, worked in intensive care units, progressive care units, home health, taught nursing in Kuwait, and later taught local students puberty and sexual health classes through her work in public health.
Rogers cared for children with cancer and seniors near the end of their life who told her their life stories. She’s watched children graduate from treatment and has been a familiar face for dying patients.
One patient she remembers she had met years earlier while treating him for cirrhosis of the liver.
“Several years later, I was working in the ICU, and he was one of my patients,” Rogers said. “He actually died on one of my shifts. But I think he was happy to have somebody there with him that knew him over the years.”
Though nurses get more recognition than they used to, it’s still a taxing job, Rogers said. The field has also taken a beating in the past few years.
Nursing and other health professions saw a sharp increase in turnover and people considered leaving the profession during the pandemic. Part of the solution, Rogers said, is paying nurses more for the work they do.
“Nurses, they provide an invaluable service,” she said. “I don’t really think that we were adequately compensated.”
Nursing, Rogers said, isn’t just a job, but a calling. She also advises young nurses who feel burned out to explore different types of nursing.
“We provide an incredible service to the medical community. If you don’t like one thing, try something else, you might have to do a couple of [nursing] jobs before you find your niche.”
When Teresa Blackner started nursing 13 years ago, it was following in the footsteps of her grandmother.
“I just really wanted to emulate her, and the things that she did to help people,” Blackner said. “So, I became a nurse too.”
Blackner, who’s worked at Gritman Medical Center in Moscow for the past five years, is a critical care unit nurse. She’s worked in Idaho most of her career.
Though rural health care comes with challenges, she said, it also allows her to have a more personal connection with her patients. For Blackner, advocating for patients’ needs based on their personal goals is a top priority.
“Something that’s really special, I think, that nurses bring specifically to medicine, is that we have the nurse-patient relationship,” she said. “We want to sit and have that conversation with you.”
Nadia Rivas, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in the ER at Pullman Regional Hospital, first started working at the hospital five years ago. She worked in the kitchen before moving to a secretarial position in the ER during the pandemic.
“Just seeing them do everything, I just wanted to see what happens behind the curtain,” she said. “That’s when I became a CNA.”
Four coworkers nominated Rivas for the hospital’s Outstanding Employee award. In their nominations they described her as loved by her patients and, “perpetually cheerful, helpful and proactive.”
Rivas said she just tries to treat patients like she’d want to see her own family treated.
“Even if it’s just like holding their hand during a blood pressure cuff,” she said. “If there are little things I’m able to do to make you feel less scared, let me hold your hand during this blood pressure cuff. Let me bring a warm blanket. Let me put some socks on you.”
Rivas, whose parents are from Central America, said she wants to give back in the future by traveling for missionary work to Guatemala and El Salvador.
“It’s nice to be able to grow up in this area, especially in Pullman, because of the community and how they want you to grow and expand,” she said. “So winning this title, I was able to help my community here. Now it’s time to help my people out there.”
This report is made in partnership with Northwest Public Broadcasting, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.