My Specialty

Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, Roosevelt Davis, Children’s Hospital of Orange County

From the football field to bedside nursing

You had a very unusual and fascinating path to a nursing career. What were you doing prior to entering nursing school?

When I first arrived at UCLA, my main interest was playing football. Since I entered the process a little late, all of the scholarships had already been spoken for. I was able to enter as a “preferred walk-on,” meaning that if I maintained good grades and played well, I’d get a scholarship for the following year.

My brother was also playing on the football team, but he had to stop when he tore his ACL and MCL. That completely changed his journey, and it made me realize that anything could happen.

As my football career at UCLA continued, my coach kept encouraging me to look beyond professional athletics. He wasn’t a coach who felt that football had to be your life 24/7; he said that playing sports was great, but you also had to take care of business in the rest of your life. That had an effect on me.

What happened next?

I had an ankle injury during my otherwise successful football career, and getting hit in the head a lot wasn’t really fun. It made me realize that I needed to explore what else I could do if football didn’t work out. I wanted to see how I could make a difference in the world.

I went to a few career fairs and the career path that most caught my eye was nursing. I did some research and realized I could finish the nursing prerequisites (most of which I did at Santa Monica College), graduate with my bachelor’s degree in political science and then just turn around and apply to nursing school.

Why did you choose nursing?

Healthcare was all around me. My nana was high up in the healthcare world. My aunt is also a nurse, and my stepmom is actually a nurse at UCLA. Meanwhile, my mom works on the legal side of healthcare; she was the one who taught me about the importance of documentation in nursing and patient care. Even my dad had some pharmacy background in school.

 What was nursing school like for you?

As an African-American man and a college athlete, I was honestly really scared the first day I walked into that classroom. In a class of 70, there were only three Black men, including me, and a handful of Black women. There were about 10 men overall.

I was so afraid of being different from everybody else. On a football team, you’re around people you know and who know exactly what you do because you all play the same game and share a common goal. However, I very quickly realized that my fellow students welcomed me without any judgment. Now, I have friends for a lifetime.

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In my initial semester, I was able to use my experience in football to get an A on a group project. It was based on concussions, and it featured my athletic trainer. The other students loved it, and it brought together two things I loved: sports and nursing.

What did it mean to you to become a nurse?

I kept my goal of going into nursing pretty low-key at first. When I finished football and everyone found out I was accepted into the nursing program, they were all really excited for me, especially my teammates.

Hanging out in the locker room, they would say things like, “Dude, I couldn’t do that — that’s inspiring,” or, “Man, you go get that; that’s different. I look up to you for that.” Actually, one younger player was taking similar classes to me. He wanted to go into healthcare too, so we had that in common, which was cool.

When I really thought about it, I said to myself, You know what? There’s this NFL football player named Laurent Duvernay-Tardif who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, and now he’s a doctor.He was someone I looked up to, and I realized I could do it too.

Nursing was the right career choice for me for all the right reasons, including the incredible flexibility in what you can do over the years, like travel nursing.

During nursing school, I was looking at pediatric or adult ER or ICU, but I totally fell in love with working with children. I always liked pediatrics and was so drawn to kids’ natural resilience. I had one rotation in the PICU where I took care of a very sick 14-year-old girl, and that’s when I knew I wanted to work in the ICU with children.

What are the patients like and what are their typical ages?

Most of the time, they’re infants. CVICU is more for kids with heart defects, so we get a lot of kids postop from cardiac defect repairs.

We do get some older kids, up to age 21. These are usually the patients who started out with us when they were neonates and have come back for follow-up from surgeries and other care.

What’s most challenging about working with kids?

You’re not just dealing with the child, but also the parents and the family. There are the emotions of the parents, the uncles and aunts and any other family members who may be involved, including siblings.

If the patients are really young and preverbal, they can’t tell you what’s going on, how they feel or where it hurts. You have to pay attention, observe them closely and also talk with the parents.

Nursing Education

At CHOC, we practice family-centered care. I just love the parents and families. They actually make our jobs much easier when they’re involved in care. Parents understand their kids better than anyone.

What’s family-centered care like during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We allow one parent in the room at a time, which isn’t ideal, but is how we have to do it. It can be really difficult because usually both parents want to be there. However, the parents have been very understanding.

I don’t always work directly with COVID-19 patients. I often serve as what we call the PPE nurse; I monitor everyone to make sure they’re using the right PPE, donning and doffing everything correctly and adhering to our very strict standards.

How do you deal with seeing a child who’s in pain or suffering?

While I’m working, I have to stay focused and professional. Of course, I care one thousand percent, but I can’t put all my emotions into it or I’d be totally unable to do my job. I have to look at the situation medically and scientifically in order to figure out how to relieve that child’s pain and suffering.

After work, I call my dad or my mom and debrief with them. I tell them how I feel, and it’s much better once I let my emotions out.

What are your favorite things about working in cardiovascular intensive care? What excites you?

I love cardiac care and how specialized it is. The heart is so complex, and I never realized how many defects there can be. You have to think about anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology; I learn something new every day.

Sometimes, we see kids with anomalies where their sats [arterial oxygen saturation percentages] are in the 70s or 80s, and that’s normal for some of them. Other times kids will cry and desat, and you have to figure out what they need to calm down and get back to baseline as fast as possible.

Everyone in our CVICU works together. I never feel alone because I know my coworkers always have my back. My charge nurse, my manager, my colleagues — they’re amazing and always looking out for me. I was nervous as a new grad, but they made me feel comfortable and safe because they were always there.

What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and this moment in history?

I’ve never personally experienced any racial discrimination as a nurse. I work with all kinds of people from many backgrounds and cultures, so I just feel that everyone should be treated with the same compassion and respect no matter what.

At CHOC, we celebrate and are happy to work with such a diverse crew, sharing the common goal of caring for those in their times of greatest need.

One thing I do notice is that I’m one of the few African-American men working in the hospital setting. I’d like to use my platform to educate people and encourage them towards careers in healthcare.

What are your future career plans?

There are a lot of different things I’d like to do, but I want to take it one step at a time. I could possibly see a future as a CRNA — but right now, I’m just enjoying my colleagues, the kids, the parents and being a nurse at the bedside.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, CPC, NC-BC, has worked as a nurse since 1996 and has maintained the popular nursing blog Digital Doorway since 2005. He offers expert professional coaching for nurses and nursing students at www.nursekeith.com.


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