Gals, Shannon is one my oldest friends (we met in elementary school) and her advice about your job just being PART of your life is pure gold. I am so inspired by her career and I know you’re going to learn so much from her!
Tell us a little about yourself and your career
I’m 29 years old and live in Denver, Colorado. Prior to settling down here, I moved around quite a bit and have lived in California, Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. I also studied abroad in Spain in college, and volunteered for a few months in Argentina after graduating. I obtained my first Bachelor’s Degree from Colorado State University, where I majored in Communication Studies and minored in Spanish. I planned to work in marketing in a big city, and basically wanted to be the next Carrie Bradshaw. I graduated a semester early from CSU in 2010, so most of my friends were still in school and I wasn’t totally sure which direction to take next. So, I signed up for an international volunteer program which placed me in Argentina, living with a host family and helping to care for children awaiting foster or adoption placement in a group home. These kids ranged from three months to five years old, some with congenital medical issues and some with developmental delays related to their early life experiences. The work I did there wasn’t particularly glamorous or skilled – mostly changing diapers, feeding babies, and playing with toddlers. But being around children who had experienced trauma and loss so early in life really changed how I perceived strength and perseverance, and made me reconsider the career path I should go down.
After spending one afternoon at the hospital holding a baby who had just undergone surgery but had no family there to care for her, I realized nursing might be the ideal blend of my passions and goals. When I returned to the US, I took an entry level marketing job and worked there for the next year while trying to reconcile this calling with the weight of having just graduated college with an unrelated degree. After that first year, I moved across the country with my now husband and took another marketing job because it seemed like the safe choice. While I enjoyed these roles and the opportunities they afforded me, I was never able to shake the feeling that I was really called to something else. In 2014, I began prerequisite classes for nursing school and in 2015 I started my second Bachelor’s Degree in an accelerated second degree nursing program. I graduated in 2016 with my BSN and took the NCLEX back in Colorado soon after. I am now a Registered Nurse working in a pediatric hospital here Denver, where I’ve been for almost two years. It was definitely a winding road to get here, and everyday I am grateful to work in such an incredible place doing what I love.
How does your community of women you surround yourself with support you?
Nursing is one of the few fields overwhelmingly dominated by women. Perhaps for this reason, nurses have a reputation for “eating their young” and the issue of nurse-on-nurse bullying is of major concern within most organizations. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the hospital I work for, or the incredibly supportive environment on my particular unit, but I have never found this to be an issue. In fact, my experiences throughout my first year in nursing were the complete opposite. So much of not only the technical skill set I possess, but also the holistic care I try to provide, is based in the lessons I learned from incredibly gifted and compassionate nurses who mentored me through the start of my career. These women spent countless hours and shifts teaching me how to think critically, communicate with providers and patients, and provide the type of care I’d want my family to receive.
It’s unfortunate that we’re fed so many messages about the cattiness and competitive nature of working women, because what I’ve experienced from my female peers and leaders has been encouragement, nurturing, and endless teaching.
What is most fulfilling for you in your career in nursing?
I work with pediatric cardiac patients, most of whom are born with congenital heart defects. These anatomical defects range from simple lesions which are resolved with a single procedure, to complex life-limiting diagnoses which require multiple open heart surgeries to palliate. Without question, the most rewarding part of being a nurse is seeing my patients thrive outside the hospital. Children have a resilience factor that adults simply don’t – I’ve cared for kids who have survived devastating complications and, against all odds, are now walking and talking and laughing despite suffering more than most of us will in our entire life.
Conversely, not all stories end happily in this field and that is both humbling and complex to be a part of. Playing a small supportive role in those diverse journeys is exactly what drew me to this field initially, and is the reason I keep coming back every day. Some shifts I leave the hospital covered in poop, blood, pee, meds, gastric contents and Desitin and I wonder – how did I get here?! When I get home, sometimes I look at a notebook I keep in a drawer for tough days, which is full of pictures colored by past patients. It’s a mess of crayon scribbles on coloring sheets ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Ghostbusters and each one of the pages represents a kid. Some of them are out of the hospital now living healthy lives. Some of them aren’t. When I look at those, I am always reminded why I do this job.
What do you wish you could go back and tell your younger self re: your career aspirations?
It’s never too late to be who you want to be! When I graduated nursing school, I had the honor of giving the valedictorian speech and focused on this message. I don’t mention the valedictorian recognition to humble brag, I bring it up because If you had known me in college, you would NEVER believe I could push through the journey to earn a BSN, let alone to graduate with honors. In college I was a party girl who barely pulled off a C in 100 level algebra, and fear of being locked into that role definitely kept me from identifying and pursuing my purpose sooner. I felt like the world saw me as a dumb blonde, so that was just who I was supposed to be.
I remember my first semester of prerequisites for nursing school I had to take 21 credits of math and science and was basically scared out of my mind. I promised myself that I would dedicate everything I had to those classes, and if I could succeed in that first semester, I could keep going to the end. I basically transformed overnight into a complete nerd who studied all my free time away and was on a first name basis with the lifesavers in the community college tutoring center (shout out to those guys, they are the real MVPs).
I sobbed when I saw a 4.0 on that semester’s transcript and never looked back. Nowadays, I often think back to that time of transition and am deeply grateful for finding the courage to redirect my life. It wasn’t easy to leave a secure job and start over in my mid-20s when all my friends were settling in to their careers (with paychecks to match) – but whatever sacrifices and compromises I made for this journey have come back to me times ten.
If you’re considering a change and looking down the path to get there, don’t get distracted by how it looks in comparison to someone else’s. Just start walking, plant some flowers along the way, and follow wherever that path takes you. If you put the work in, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.
What is your career-related mantra?
Let me just preface this by saying I really love my job! It challenges me mentally and stretches me emotionally and is truly my dream come true. HOWEVER I learned the hard way during my first year in nursing that you cannot make your job your entire life. As a nurse in an emotionally labile setting where the stakes are sometimes literally life and death, it’s hard not to criticize every mistake you make and tie your job performance into your personal identity. I definitely struggled initially with the blurring of those lines between Shannon the nurse, and Shannon the wife/friend/daughter/sister.
I used to cry for days about any little mistake I made, or any obscure question I couldn’t answer when a doctor asked in rounds. This definitely bled into my home life and made it difficult to enjoy my life outside the hospital, which left me feeling burnt out on my days off and unrefreshed when it was time to go back to work. As I’ve grown professionally, I’ve learned to embrace my time off as an opportunity to recharge and nurture other parts of my life, rather than to spend every minute dissecting how I could have been better or smarter or whatever else at work.
Reflection is critical for growth, but when you build your entire identity around your job it doesn’t leave much room for other aspects of life that bring you happiness and make you whole. I like to think of my career as one of the many building blocks of my identity. It has reshaped how I think and love and grieve and learn and has fundamentally impacted who I am – but it’s not ALL that I am.