Pediatric ER Nurses Are Ready at a Moment’s Notice

Comer ER Nurses
Photo by David Christopher
Left to right: Norelle Lizzette Torno, RN; Ruthie Mae Washington, RN; and Rebecca Jehl, RN, have helped to save children’s lives in the Pediatric Emergency Room of Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago.

By Kadesha Thomas

A group of teenagers was standing around talking near their homes when suddenly a vehicle approached. A spray of bullets came from the car as it sped off. One youth was hit in the back of the head, and died immediately. Another hobbled down the street with a bullet in his right knee. The youngest victim, still in elementary school, was rushed to the Pediatric Emergency Room (PER) of Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago in critical condition.

The ER’s trauma alarm went off minutes before the boy arrived — soaked in blood and looking terrified. Rebecca Jehl, RN, along with a team of physicians, residents, a respiratory therapist and other ER nurses, were ready to do anything to save him.

“This is what we do,” Jehl explained a few days later, scrolling through news reports about dozens of children who were treated at Comer Children’s Hospital for gunshots, stab wounds or injuries sustained after falling from a window.

More than 30,000 patients come through the Comer Children’s Hospital ER each year, said Medical Director Alison Tothy, MD. About 20 to 30 percent of those cases are considered life-threatening. In addition, as a level one trauma center, the hospital receives about 500 level one trauma cases per year — patients who have potentially life-threatening injuries directly related to a trauma that occurred, or significant medical illnesses. Other cases are less critical, like patients with earaches, trouble breathing or vague flu-like symptoms.

Tothy said a strong nursing team is the key to the ER’s ability to handle such a variety of conditions. For trauma patients, nurses perform a full physical, repeatedly take vital signs, work with the physicians and residents to stabilize the patient and determine the next step — all in a matter of minutes. That next step could be more diagnostic testing or a transfer to the operating room or intensive care unit.

After coordinating any necessary support services from social work, physical therapy or the chaplain, they can pause and let it out. “I have walked out of the trauma room crying plenty of times,” Jehl said.

“During critical times, we need to try our best to push our feelings aside and stay calm and focused in order to provide the most optimal care for the patient and to be strong for all those involved,” added Norelle Lizzette Torno, RN, who has been a staff nurse in the Comer Children’s Hospital for three years. This is especially important for trauma patients, like the 12-year-old drive-by shooting victim, who ended up surviving the gunshot wound.

Ruthie Mae Washington, RN, joined the Medical Center’s nursing team 24 years ago after she was hired on the spot in college. The best thing about the ER is the fast pace, she said.

Washington and most of the ER nurses keep up by pursuing additional training. Washington earned her master of science in nursing five years ago and serves on the ER’s education committee. Torno, Jehl and four other nurses on the team will graduate with their master’s degrees next summer. The Medical Center pays for 100 percent of the cost.

“In this environment, you can’t afford to be lax,” Washington said. “Assessment skills are critical. You have to be able to look at a child and determine their level of distress and how fast you need to move. You have to stay competent because at any moment, that alarm can go off.”