The Jakarta Post
'No matter where I am, if I see a person who's in need, the first thing I say to them is 'I'm a nurse' and I'm ready to assist them,' nurse and critical care specialist Barbara McLean said.
The critical care specialist consultant at Emory University's Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been in critical practice for 40 years, was recently in Washington, DC to be a keynote speaker at the Patient Care and Clinical Informatics Training, organized by Philips Healthcare.
Her experience in the medical world dates back in 1972, when she became a supervisor of respiratory therapy at South Carolina's Baptist Hospital in Columbia for a year. She then moved to Atlanta to work as a respiratory therapist who provided respiratory care to the critically ill and rehabilitation patients.
But she only began her career as a staff nurse in 1975 when she began working at the Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta soon after graduating from a nursing science program at Dekalb College in Atlanta.
'I actually began school and got a degree in physiology but I couldn't apply the knowledge of the science in a human way, so I went to nursing school,' she said.
The young McLean wanted to improve her skills as a nurse, so she decided to move to one of the world's best hospitals, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in 1976.
'It's a very intensive hospital, but the ability to use science, to practice directed care, to be able to have a human connection and to really be involved with people at some of the most intense moments of their lives were some of the major attractions at the beginning of my career in intensive care,' she said.
Working as a nurse in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a large hospital required her to deal with life and death decisions most of the time, requiring her to be very cautious in everything she did.
'This is maybe a healthy fear; to be aware that the smallest decision that you make can affect the life of the patient. It's an incredible responsibility because you really are in intensive care and are dealing with life and death almost all the time,' she said.
McLean not only lent her nursing skills to treating people in hospitals, she also provided treatment to those in need during emergency situations.
Her first experience dealing with a major emergency was when there was a massive snowstorm in Boston in 1978 with snow flurries up to 6 feet deep, leaving many providers stranded and unable to reach the hospital. On one occasion, she journeyed for around 11 kilometers on skis in about 15 degrees below-zero weather to reach some patients.
'It was chaos; we had many young and elderly people who had to be escorted to hospital by the military because they were suffering badly; they had no heat or electricity and many people were starving,' she recalled.
Since then, she has been involved in taking care of people in other natural disaster, including when she was among the first responders to the Houston Astro arena on day one of the evacuation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
Being experienced in emergency situations in a number of hospitals did not make it any easier for her to do her job in disaster areas, however.
'No matter how much preparation you have in disaster simulations, the reality is different ' acutely and profoundly different,' said the holder of a master's of science in nursing and a post-master's in a nurse practitioner program.
She said at hospital, she knew the resources that she had; she knew the team members who could perform certain tasks and who to rely on. But when she traveled to disaster areas, she explained, 'you have no idea what to expect'.
McLean said that before going to disaster areas, she would usually seek out contacts who could help in terms of ensuring the availability of resources in the field.
'If you go to a disaster area and just go to help out, but have no idea what you're going to do when you get there or how you're going to be connected, you actually become part of the problem,' she said.
Going to disaster areas was not only physically draining ' sometimes, she had to treat hundreds of patients with fewer than five providers ' it was also emotionally draining.
'It's very hard to restore yourself when it's over,' she said. McLean said almost everyone had residual effects of being with other people who were suffering acutely or who died and remembering that, during disaster scenarios, there was no time to mourn when someone died; you had to immediately treat the next patient.
'I have nightmares, feelings of sorrow and inexplicable loss,' she said. She added that when medical personnel went to disaster areas with deployment teams, they would usually undergo a debriefing session afterward. But, as she connected with a system, she did not get the opportunity to debrief with the others about their shared trauma.
Her diligent work as a nurse has not only made her well-known among her colleagues but also among many hospitals and health institutions around the world.
She is often asked to be a speaker at courses or workshops for hospitals and universities. So fars she has been a speaker on over 2,000 courses worldwide, primarily focusing on sepsis, ventilation and tissue oxygenation.
She has also written for various critical care textbooks and is a health educator at the International Rescue Center for Refugees, which has developed basic critical care education and practices in Nicaragua and Tanzania.
She is also the 20th nurse in the history of critical care practice to be inducted as a fellow into the American College of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), and was also a governing council member for the SCCM, working to determine the future of medicine in general and critical care in particular.
Throughout her journey as a nurse, she said that her profession had showed her that healthcare was a universal language that set aside the artificial barriers that exist between cultures and countries.
'Most importantly, as human beings, we share the most intimate moments of joint suffering, and the ability to experience that on both sides with other human beings is very precious,' McLean said.