Warseal Powell was just 22 years old and two years into her nursing career when she experienced a pivotal moment that highlighted the humanity and importance of her job. She saw her first patient die and also witnessed how the experienced nurses comforted the patient’s family.
The patient was a man in his late 70s at a hospital where Powell was working. His prostate cancer had spread to other parts of his body and ultimately caused significant gastrointestinal bleeding. After efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful, the veteran nurses moved quickly to prepare his body so that his family could see him, Powell recalled, choking up at the memory of the event more than 20 years ago.
Powell said her colleagues knew this would be her first experience with a patient dying, so they let her step away and collect herself while the veteran nurses gathered around the family and talked with them. “I really understood [then] what it meant to take care of people — what it meant when someone’s life is in your hands,” Powell said.
Nurses are often the human face of health care, offering comfort and care during some of the most trying times in the lives of their patients and their families. Nurses see people both at their best and in times of dire need.
For Powell, the moment she experienced as a relatively new nurse stuck with her and made her view her profession not just as a job, but as a calling. It’s an attitude she tries to instill in the younger nurses she now mentors.
“I can remember going home and replaying it in my mind … What could I have done better?” said Powell, now a nurse practitioner in Maryland for OptumCare, a sister company of UnitedHealthcare.
During her 24-year career, Powell has worked in oncology, intensive care units — both adult and neonatal — and long-term care facilities. Seeing patients and their loved ones during some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives has taught her that giving 100 percent for each patient isn’t necessarily about medical care. It could be something as simple as carrying on a conversation or noticing that a patient has a new hairstyle.
“When you have a personal relationship with your patients, your job is not just to assess them [medically] — it’s to look out for them, mentally and physically,” she said.
Powell’s inspirational story is just one of many at UnitedHealthcare, one of the largest employers of nurses in the United States. Mary Kay Carron, who works in some of the most disadvantaged communities in southeastern Wisconsin, faces a different set of situations. Carron is a registered nurse and a case manager for UnitedHealthcare Community & State, the division of the company that serves the Medicaid population.
Part of Carron’s work involves visiting patients in their homes to better understand their day-to-day experiences. Those visits taught her that understanding how patients live is critical to understanding how to improve their health.
While visiting a diabetic patient last summer to check on her blood sugar, Carron noticed that the woman didn’t have electricity, which also meant she wasn’t keeping her insulin refrigerated.
“I had a cooler in my garage that I wasn’t using,” Carron recalled. “I ran home and brought it over to her.”
Carron then called the utility company to set up a payment plan so the patient could get her power back on. Because many patients have limited minutes on their own phones, Carron used a mobile phone provided by UnitedHealthcare specifically for this purpose.
“What started as a basic question about, ‘Are you checking your blood sugar every day and can you show me how much insulin you’re taking?’ turned into a bigger problem to solve,” Carron said. “It just opens your eyes to the fact that there are a million and one other problems that they see as more important than, say, checking their blood sugar every morning. Many times, their social needs are as great, if not greater, than their medical needs. … They go hand in hand.”
Carron said seeing patients in need has reinforced the lesson that a patient’s medical issues cannot be addressed in isolation.
“Doing as much home care nursing as I did brought to light the importance of seeing how these patients live,” she said. “Until you can actually get on their turf, so to speak, you really can’t attempt to walk in their shoes.”