It is often said that nursing is a calling. That wasn’t initially the case for one nurse at Eisenhower Army Medical Center. But looking back on her 12-year career, she has no regrets making the decision.
As a college freshman, Maj. Maria-Cristina Caruso, clinical nurse OIC, had ambitions of majoring in music, but changed her mind after a family friend recommended she look into nursing school.
“I thought, ‘I’m the oldest of four kids … I always cared for them,’ so I said, ‘I can do this,’ and I went on to nursing school,” Caruso said.
The first in her family to take up a career in health care, Caruso graduated from school in May 2008.
“Then I was talked into joining the Army at a health fair, so I did a direct commission,” Caruso. “They said, ‘Come join us for a few years, come see the world,’ and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
There was no way of knowing at the time that she would eventually go on to care for patients and fellow nurses during one of the world’s most vulnerable times in history.
Caruso is the head nurse of EAMC’s medical/ surgical/pediatric unit (9MSP) and COVID-19 unit (9W). Prior to taking over in April, she served as the hospital’s clinical nurse specialist for inpatients and as a nurse manager on the 11th floor – both of which helped prepare her for her current role.
“I tell my boss I’m like the inpatient services jack-of-all-trades,” Caruso said. “You can fit me anywhere and I’ll do anything.”
At a time when hospitals were ramping up and in some cases being inundated with patients due to COVID-19, Caruso said the operations tempo actually dropped drastically for her.
“This floor is typically the surgical floor, and we (temporarily) stopped doing surgeries, so we are seeing a tenth of the number of patients we’d normally see,” Caruso explained.
Her biggest concern at the time was getting additional staff for the COVID-19 unit.
“When they started talking numbers of patients that would be admitted, I knew that we were definitely not going to have the staff to do it,” she said.
Then came the task of calming others’ fears.
Emotions were high and concerns poured out over potential personal protective equipment shortages being reported around the world. Fortunately, circumstances quickly proved to be different at EAMC.
“It was a lot of clearing up rumors and addressing fears,” Caruso said. “It’s more than just being concerned for the patient – it’s being concerned for the staff.”
More than two months into the pandemic, the number of patients on her floor has been low and day-to-day operations smooth overall.
“We just haven’t seen a huge amount of patients, which is good,” Caruso said. “I definitely won’t complain.”
But that doesn’t mean she and her staff aren’t working around the clock. There are always patients who need tended to, missions to accomplish, and learning to digest – the latter being one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, Caruso said. During a recent Nursing Skills Fair she created, Caruso taught nurses different ways to prepare for challenges associated with the current pandemic. And just as she organized and commanded the fair, Caruso has also had her hands in planning ways to honor fellow nurses.
National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6 and ends on May 12. To show her appreciation, Caruso baked 150 heart-shaped cookies, decorated with red lifelines, to be handed out to EAMC staff. For her, Nurses Week is a time of reflection and showing gratitude.
“It’s a time where we look and say ‘thank you’ to our peers for helping us and to our mentors for turning us into the people we are today … to reaffirm to ourselves why we got into this profession in the first place,” she said. “Regardless of whether we are in the Army or are serving as a civilian, we have answered the call to care for the physical, emotional and mental conditions our patients find themselves in.”