On the move: Northwestern nurse practitioner's responsibilities allow little time for rest
Jennifer Sullivan is lead nurse practitioner for post-operative cardiac surgery management at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Details on nurse practitioners
Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with advanced degrees—usually master's or beyond—and clinical training that qualify them for specialized areas of nursing practice. In most states, NPs can work independently of physicians. Approximately 60 percent to 80 percent of primary and preventive care can be performed by nurse practitioners, according to the American Nurses Association. This includes writing prescriptions for some kinds of medication, a task that registered nurses are not able to perform.
In some parts of the country where physicians are scarce, nurse practitioners fulfill the role as primary care providers.
Some specialties for NPs include Women's Health, Gerontology Health, Oncology and Psychiatric/Mental Health.
The growing emphasis on prevention and public health will continue to create excellent job opportunities for NPs. According to the 2007 survey data from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, the average annual salary for all specialties of full-time nurse practitioners is $86,486.
Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Jennifer Sullivan, an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, suggests registered nurses get a good base of clinical experience before jumping into a nurse practitioner program.
"It does a disservice to patients if you don't get some experience," she says. "If you've mastered bedside nursing, I would encourage it."
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She's not a corporate soldier sweating out the coffee and bagel she'll eat at her desk as her workday begins. She is making rounds at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, assessing patients who have recently undergone cardiac surgery.
She asks patient after patient—sometimes a dozen a day—about their pain, their breathing, their bowels. She listens with a stethoscope to chests, backs, bellies. And she takes endless notes on what she's seen, felt, heard.
Sullivan, the lead nurse practitioner for post-operative cardiac surgery management, has been in the field for 15 years, and her experience shows in her confident communication. To one woman and her daughter, a fellow nurse, Sullivan explains they are waiting for the patient's heart to get stronger before performing an additional procedure. To another patient, she assures that fatigue is a usual part of recovery and explains that using bedside devices designed to promote lung expansion will help increase his activity tolerance. Being in cardiac surgery, many of the patients she cares for are elderly.
"You can learn so much from your patients," she says. "I didn't know either of my grandfathers. It's nice to be able to talk to that generation."
She works with patients to make a plan of care for the day. Sullivan appreciates that she is able to work autonomously. She is the patient's manager and advocate at this stage of the surgical process. While her training and years of experience mean she can act independently, she may have to step into a surgery to ask a physician for advice.
"Our work allows surgeons to do what they want to do, which is to be in surgery," she says.
Sullivan says the trust she and her team of nurse practitioners enjoy from physicians benefits the whole team and the patients.
"Patients are safer because there's always someone around to care for them," she says.
After frantically documenting everything she has been scribbling on a thick computer printout all morning, Sullivan finally has a minute to relax. It is noon.
"Restroom breaks can be few and far between," she says. "They are long days. You're on your feet a lot. It can be physically demanding.
"I welcome that."
Sullivan works four 10-hour days a week. Today, she has almost five hours left in her workday to continue monitoring patients, ensuring they are becoming strong enough to go home, and to fulfill the duties as her role of lead nurse practitioner, representing the eight other nurse practitioners at all meetings throughout the Northwestern hierarchy. She cites her communication and organization skills as the qualities that have made her a successful nurse and manager.
"I'd much rather be out taking care of patients," she says. "I need to be out talking to people. But I have a good team. I can delegate to the team. It has to be a team effort."