After 44-year career, retired nurse returns to work in midst of pandemic

Patients make job gratifying

Posted 5/13/20

Erica Epling was in her 10th day of retirement after a 44-year career of nursing when she got a call from her former supervisor asking her to return.

It was March. The epicenter of the coronavirus …

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After 44-year career, retired nurse returns to work in midst of pandemic

Patients make job gratifying

Posted

Erica Epling was in her 10th day of retirement after a 44-year career of nursing when she got a call from her former supervisor asking her to return.

It was March. The epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic had broken out in Washington, and nurses, doctors, technicians and health-care workers around the globe were masking up for long days, nights and weeks of caring for those fighting the deadly virus.

“Things were getting more and more apparent,” she said. “I couldn’t say no. I knew my former colleagues were all going to face it, and I wanted to help.”

As Jefferson Healthcare began to double bedspaces and set up drive-through testing to prepare for the ripples of a global pandemic to hit this rural community, Epling was at the center of it, working with administrative staff to plan how best to care for COVID-19 patients.

“It was high anxiety on everybody’s part,” she said. “Things were changing daily and the hospital was gearing up for this pandemic.”

Since coming back after her short 10 day retirement, Epling has worked as lead RN, ensuring there are enough staff members and medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment, in the case of a surge of patients.

“The professional skills she developed throughout her career have proved to be invaluable,” said Tina Toner, head nurse at Jefferson Healthcare. “And her motives couldn’t be clearer – Erica is in it for our community. Her work reflects her desire to bring about the best outcomes for patients and support Jefferson Healthcare in that shared goal.”

Before the current health crisis, Epling worked as an acute care unit nurse at Jefferson Healthcare for 28 years. In the ACU, nurses work with patients who were recently in the emergency room with severe or life-threatening injuries or illnesses. They also work with patients recovering from surgery, with the goal of restoring the health and stability of the patient.

“This job is never dull,” she said. “Every day is different.”

Epling has been caring for people her entire life. Growing up in Connecticut, she worked as a candy striper at her local hospital when she was a teenager.

“Candy stripers” were volunteers at hospitals, dubbed so for their red and white striped uniforms.

“It was mostly to have patient contact,” she said. “We didn’t have any medical responsibilities, but we were another face for people to talk to when they were in the hospital.”

Volunteering at the hospital is what drew Epling to nursing school. Candy stripers often had menial tasks, such as fetching a glass of water, but she enjoyed those moments of patient contact.

While she wanted to be a physician’s assistant, she decided to first go to nursing school to gain experience. Attending school in Maine, she decided to stick with nursing. After graduating, she worked as a psychiatric nurse for 10 years.

Moving to Florida, Epling worked in an adolescent psychiatric residential facility with children who had mental health issues. She also spent time working at an emergency room for people with psychiatric illnesses.

“After 10 years, it was time for a change,” she said.

A relative in San Diego invited her to the West Coast, where she met her husband. In 1988, the pair ended up in Port Townsend, where she began working at Port Townsend Family Physicians before moving to Jefferson Healthcare.

Working first as a psychiatric nurse and then moving into a new career as an ACU nurse and working 12-hour shifts was not easy, but Epling found every aspect of her nursing career to be rewarding.

“It’s very exhausting, emotionally, mentally and physically,” she said. “But you support each other. Everyone works together for the patients. And you feel like you’re doing some good.”

Epling likes being part of a team that works effortlessly to give the best possible care, she said. But some of her most memorable experiences during her career have been interacting with patients.

“When you can take the time to sit and hold their hand and have a heart-to-heart conversation,” she said. “Those are the times I really remember.”

A lot of times, those conversations are about death and dying.

“They’re about facing crises, and their own mortality,” she said. “To be able to help them through whatever stage it is they’re in, as much as you can, is important.”

First responders, nurses and doctors all witness humans at their most vulnerable — and in a pandemic, that is more evident.

For Epling, those moments can be hard to carry, but they can also be life-changing.

“It’s therapeutic to me to actually shed a few tears with someone,” she said. “To lean on each other’s shoulders.”

At Jefferson Healthcare, she has worked with a team of people that rely on one another like that.

“It takes a village,” she said. “Everybody rolls up their sleeves to do what they can.”

And even when the pandemic has passed, nurses like Epling will continue to do that.

“When I was ‘invited’ to return after retirement, I have a more administrative role and I’m getting the chance to help streamline some of the work that happens at the bedside,” she said. “I hope to be able to make a difference to the RNs and CNAs by making the information they need more pertinent and accessible.”

But after this is all over, Epling might continue her retirement that ended so abruptly.

“It was a delightful 10 days,” she joked.

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