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Spring 2000

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For high-profile nurse, patient care comes first

by Karen Hammond

Bailey Staub Johnson ’73 tackles the hands-on, and high-tech, work of helping patients in intensive care.

     T wenty-seven years ago, Bailey Staub Johnson ’73 listened as a Skidmore nursing professor promised, “Skidmore builds leaders. You can all go on to be leaders in your profession.” For Johnson it was a typical rallying call for graduating seniors, but not one she took to heart. “I was at that time of life when the hormones were racing, I wanted school to end, and I wanted to get on with life,” she admits. One of only two nursing majors in her class who did not immediately go on for a master’s degree, Johnson says, “I just wanted to get into the real world of nursing as soon as possible.”

     Shortly after graduation, Johnson began her career as a staff nurse, first at a small regional hospital in Houlton, Maine, and later at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Working with the hospital’s most seriously ill patients, she found her calling as a critical-care nurse.

     Today she is charge nurse in the six-bed intensive care unit at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth. Using state-of-the art technology, she oversees victims of heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory distress, monitors patients on ventilators, and, especially during the busy Maine tourist season, cares for victims of serious automobile or sports accidents. Dedicated to her many coronary patients even after they leave intensive care, she helped lead an effort to establish a cardiac rehabilitation unit in the hospital in 1998. A huge success, the busy unit now helps patients recover from heart attacks, and prevent future cardiac trouble, through personalized programs of diet, exercise, and stress management.

     This is exactly the way Johnson expected to spend her professional life. “I’m happiest being close to the patients,” she says simply.

     But Johnson’s career has also taken a turn she never envisioned as a college senior. She has become one of the highest-profile nurses in the state: the president of the Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA), she speaks at nursing conferences and conventions and writes about legislative developments and nursing trends for MSNA’s official publication, The Maine Nurse. “It’s always a bit of a jolt when I’m introduced as ‘one of Maine’s nursing leaders,’ ” she admits. “I still sometimes wonder if they can be talking about me.”

     The woman whose greatest professional satisfaction comes from hands-on care now also heads an activist group that researches and publicizes health-care issues and educates consumers on such controversial topics as managed care, assisted suicide, and end-of-life issues. Currently MSNA is encouraging Maine’s U.S. senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and representatives John Baldacci and Tom Allen to support a Patient Bill of Rights to alert consumers about issues that affect all hospital patients, including insurance coverage, early discharge, and patient safety. An affiliate of the national American Nurses Association, MSNA also mobilizes nurses when federal budget cuts threaten nursing education, and it’s at the forefront of promoting advanced-practice nursing—especially important in Maine, where nurses serve as primary caregivers in many rural parts of the state.

     Being in the unusual position of heading a growing 1,600-member organization while still working on the front lines of health-care delivery gives Johnson a broad perspective. For example, she asserts, “Hospitals must be fiscally responsible. We all know that. But this can’t take place at the expense of the patient. Insurance companies should not be dictating patient care. Only the physician should be making those decisions.”

     Although none are employed at her workplace, Johnson is worried by the growing use of “unlicensed assistive personnel” (UAPs) to deal directly with patient care in many hospitals. She explains that licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, who work under the supervision of registered nurses, “are well trained for their jobs and have a defined scope of practice. But in some hospitals UAPs with little or no training are caring for people. The first question anyone hospitalized should ask is, ‘Who is the RN responsible for my care?’ Studies have shown that patients’ outcomes are much better when RNs care for them.” For this reason, MSNA has been instrumental in requiring name-tag identification of health-care workers’ credentials, and today many RNs in Maine wear an oversized RN pin in addition to their hospital name tag. Nationwide, many state nursing organizations, including MSNA, are studying the long-term impact of the expanded presence of UAPs on patient care.

Johnson at her homemade cabin in the Maine woods

     Johnson (the daughter of Marjory Becher Staub ’46) says her Skidmore education prepared her to make lifestyle choices, whether it’s to buck trends by remaining a hospital nurse instead of seeking an administrative or advanced practice position, or to live quietly in the relative isolation of rural Maine. Several years ago, while balancing their careers with the needs of a young daughter, a teenage son, and a rambunctious Labrador named Pumpkin, Johnson and her husband, Richard, decided to build a log house in the Maine woods. “We had no experience whatsoever,” she recalls. “A truck came and dumped precut logs marked ‘A-1,’‘‘B-2,’ and so forth, and we went to work. I found that organizing the house construction was, surprisingly, not unlike planning a patient care program.” Using the logic that has helped her map hundreds of nursing plans, and taking each step with an eye toward the final outcome, Johnson and her husband managed to build their own home with little outside help.

     “The summer the house was going up,” she recalls, “we lived in a tent—all of us, including the dog. I was working nights and had to get up in the middle of the night, dress, and pick my way through the woods with a flashlight to get to my car.” But once at the hospital, she segued easily into the high-tech world of modern medicine. “Skidmore helped me to adapt anywhere,” she says. After freshman year in what she calls the “homey” atmosphere of Ross House, Johnson lived in New York City for the two-year clinical-practice phase of Skidmore’s nursing program. “I’m not a city person,” she says, “but I learned to survive there, and I had clinical experiences I would never have had elsewhere.”

     In Maine there is an often-told story about a tourist “from away” who becomes lost on a convoluted backwoods road. When the tourist asks a passing local how to get to his destination, the Mainer replies, “You can’t get they-ah from he-ah.” Perhaps getting there from here is an apt metaphor for Johnson’s own life. At Skidmore she knew where she was headed, but she didn’t see the twists in the road that have placed her in the position of leader and advocate for her profession. Like the tourist who eventually gets where he’s going, perhaps enriched by his foray into the unknown, Johnson says her career has been what she expected—and far more than she ever anticipated.

Freelance writer Karen Hammond lives in midcoast Maine, where she writes on topics ranging from health and women’s issues to popular culture.

 


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