Just as Amy Smith kicked off her shoes more than two years ago after a full shift in the Riverside Walter Reed Hospital Emergency Department, the phone rang.
Mass casualties. People trapped in their homes. The bridge shut down. There had been a devastating tornado.
Smith and every Walter Reed emergency nurse got that call. Whether they were on duty or not, they headed to the hospital. "It's what you do," Smith said. "It's what we do."
"We are fortunate to have such a dedicated, talented team in our Emergency Department," said Megan Kleckner, Vice President and Administrator of Riverside Walter Reed Hospital. "They live the Riverside mission of 'caring for others as we would care for those we love' no matter the circumstance or situation. We appreciate them each and every day and celebrate them during this week."
Walter Reed is home to 27 emergency nurses with an average tenure of 12 years.
Chances are if you haven't needed to be in the Emergency Department for care, you've seen them around the community, at the Daffodil Festival in Gloucester and Run for the Dream Half-Marathon in Williamsburg where they set up first aid and medical tents, or the Kids Camp earlier this summer where they invited middle school students in to learn about the wide variety of health care occupations available.
The emergency nurses at Walter Reed hold certifications in CPR, advanced cardiac and pediatric life support, trauma and pediatric nursing.  They train beyond the requirements. Walter Reed's Christy Johnston, RN, for instance, works on Disaster Medical Assistant Teams and responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Amanda Niblett, RN is a Forensic Nurse Examiner working on her certification as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and several nurses, like Karen Kramer, RN, volunteer for the local rescue squads.
"When I was younger, I thought I'd never work in an emergency room," Smith said. "I always thought they had to be a jack of all trades but a master of none. I wanted to be really good at one thing. What I realized about emergency nursing, though, is you have to be a master of everything."
Any single day can bring in a wife who learns that the pain she was feeling and came to the emergency department for is cancer, unconscious children, teenagers hallucinating from new drugs making their rounds on the streets, entire families suffering from the flu or a community dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster.
The night of the tornado, the Walter Reed emergency nurse team saw residents suffering from the trauma of homes ripped apart, adults who lost access to their oxygen and people "who were scared and came in because they needed the shelter," said Niblett, Walter Reed's Emergency Department Nurse Manager.
"Days later we still had a gentleman who came in and sat in the waiting room because of post-traumatic stress," Niblett said. "He just needed to know he was in a safe place."
Soldiers on a battlefield might be the only other professional group who can understand the life of an emergency nurse, Johnston said. "When you are in something bad with somebody, those are bonds that can never be broken," said Johnston. "Here, in the emergency department, people will never understand what you witness, what you did or how it impacts you."
Or why you do it year after year, added Smith.  "But we do," Smith said, "because we want to make a difference."

Published: October 7, 2013