A conversation with Kathleen McCaffery
For Hub City Times
MARSHFIELD — When Kathleen McCaffery graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire nursing program, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were building the first Apple computers, Jimmy Carter was campaigning for president, a gallon of gas was 59 cents, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped out at 1,004.
It was 1976 when this young nursing school grad from Prentice accepted her first role as a nurse at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield. Her starting pay was $4.95 per hour, which was 20 cents higher than the hospitals in Eau Claire. Beginning on her first day, McCaffery wore her nurses’ cap, a tradition she continued over the next 40 years providing care on 4N, the medical/surgical unit of the hospital.
Recently, Laura Kibbel, McCaffery’s supervisor on 4N, asked her to take a look back over her career with the hospital and reflect on the changes that have taken place during her career. Here is a summary of their discussion.
Laura Kibbel: Tell us about where you graduated from nursing school, what your plans were upon graduation, and how you ended up on 4N at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
Kathleen McCaffery: I graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1976. I was familiar with Marshfield because my mom was born and raised here. I liked the city, and a number of my friends were taking jobs there. Saint Joseph’s Hospital had a great reputation, and it was only 75 miles from my home town of Prentice.
I needed to make a decision between Marshfield and Eau Claire. It came down to money. Eau Claire was paying $4.75 per hour, and Saint Joe’s was paying $4.95 per hour.
I was only going to stay a year, and with experience I would be able to go anywhere. I worked all three shifts the first year. Construction on the tower was in progress when I came in 1976, and two years later we moved to the new hospital tower.
I chose 4N, a 50-bed med-surg unit. My favorite patients were the abdominal and vascular surgeries. I stayed and weathered the changes the next 38 years. I always said, “I will stay another year.”
LK: Tell us about how the surgical patient population has changed over the years.
KM: Years ago our surgical population consisted of patients who were in for preps, those who had surgery, and those that needed some recovery time. For example, bowel surgery patients were in for two or three days before surgery so the prep could be done under our watchful eye. After surgery the average length of stay was at least 10 days, so patients stayed about two weeks for colon surgery. Now patients are admitted the day of surgery, and average length of stay is three to five days.
LK: Tell us about some of the changes in health care over the past 40 years that stand out to you the most.
KM: One example is the electronic medical record versus handwritten documentation. Back in the day, a “keyboard” consisted of black ink for day shift, green ink for p.m. shift, and red ink for nights. We had flow sheets with SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, and plan) charting. And instead of waiting for medical records to bring a paper chart, you now have it at your fingertips.
Today there are increasing numbers of medication choices to treat diseases and illnesses along with significant advancement and less invasive procedures — lap surgeries; stents for cardiac, urinary, vascular, and biliary problems; interventional radiology for abscesses versus exploratory surgery. We also use PCAs (patient-controlled analgesia) and epidurals now instead of IM (intramuscular) Demerol or morphine every four hours.
LK: What makes you happy when you think about where nursing is now compared to 40 years ago?
KM: Nurses now have opportunities for advanced degrees to expand their role to nurse practitioner, and there are opportunities for nurses to practice outside of the usual hospital and clinic settings. Public health and home health have grown. School nurses, occupational health, and research are also opportunities.
LK: What makes you sad when you think about where nursing is now compared to 40 years ago?
KM: I had a nursing professor, Bea Wagner, who taught us med-surg and nursing research and leadership. Forty years ago she told us in the future all RNs would be bachelor’s prepared at the entry level, but at this time that has still not happened.
LK: What has it meant to you to work at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital?
KM: I have had the opportunity to care for all kinds of patients in a well-respected hospital. I saw this hospital go through many stages of construction and growth. I have seen many advances in nursing care. I have had the chance to work on a world-class medical campus in a small town. I have been a preceptor to countless students and new RNs and was here when our very first surgical resident started.
LK: If you could give any advice to new nurses, what would it be?
KM: Treat each patient as the unique individual they are. Treat them and talk to them as you would like to be talked to and treated.
Don’t shy away from challenges. Embrace them. You will only get stronger in your practice.
Take every opportunity to learn. Ask questions. Be patient.
Communicate with your patients. Talk to them. Listen to them. Don’t be judgmental. Remember patients are in a very vulnerable spot.
Listen to and respect your peers. Take responsibility for your actions.
LK: Heath care is going through major changes all across the nation. What advice would you give to the nurses out there that don’t know if they can survive the rapid changes?
KM: Hang on for the ride, be flexible, and find out as much as you can about changes, and incorporate them into your practice.
LK: What are your retirement plans?
KM: I want to continue to travel, only one more continent left: Antarctica. Sleep past 5:30 a.m. Enjoy nature. Continue to support Marshfield High School athletics. I already have my bleacher seat. Renew all my old friendships. Watch all the Packer and Badger games with no work interference.
LK: Lastly, you have worn your traditional nurse’s cap every shift for the past 40 years. Why was it so important for you to continue wearing it when all the other nurses no longer did?
KM: I am a traditionalist. I received my cap in January of 1974, just before we began our clinical. It was a very proud moment and meaningful ceremony.
When I graduated, all nurses, except men, were wearing caps. Each school of nursing had its own unique cap. No two were alike. You could tell at a glance where an RN had gone to school by looking at the cap. All RNs were in white, including shoes and socks.
The cap earned your respect. Everyone knew you were a nurse before they knew your name.
The capping ceremony is gone. No one gets a cap anymore. As the dress code relaxed, I still wanted to wear my cap and white scrubs. It means a lot to me, and I am so proud of the profession I have chosen. I have been very blessed and will miss taking care of patients.