What It's Like Being a Nurse Practitioner

This interview with Atlanta-based Dr. Sharon Campbell was condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us @VP_Careers. Also, follow @ArgosyU.

How did you end up being a nurse practitioner?

I started out really as a nursing assistant in the 80s while going through school. I always knew that healthcare was where I was going to be in the sciences. Then I became a nursing assistant, and then I went to school and got my bachelor’s degree, and worked in the intensive care unit. I’ve always been in the intensive care unit, for about 15 years, for open-heart surgery; all the ICUs really went into management there. That was New York. Then I moved to Atlanta and I worked at Grady hospital. I wouldn’t say got burnt out, but I didn’t like the tertiary care part of it. I wanted to move into primary care where I could do more education and prevention of illnesses and get to them sooner, versus deal with them on the back end. So I went back to school and got my Master’s degree as a nurse practitioner, went into primary care. Therefore I got to talk to my patients and educate them. In 2014 I wanted to move up more and into management, and just continually seeking self-actualization, so I went back and got my doctorate. That took me into… I still am where I am, but it’s opened more doors to teaching and the like. But I always knew I wanted to be in healthcare, and the moment I found nursing, being able to really affect change in a positive way with people is phenomenal. I knew that was where I wanted to be.

What reaction do you get when you share your job with peers?

As a nurse practitioner, or as a doctorally-prepared nurse practitioner, a lot of times when I meet other nurses they are happy to meet me and to understand the process that I took to get there. I think a lot of nurse practitioners do strive, eventually, to get there. Patients, when I meet them and I do explain after a couple minutes being with them, a lot of them really have no clue of who you are… because I have been at my practice for 14 years. Then they’ll say, “What kind of doctor are you?” And I’ll say, “I’m a doctorally-prepared nurse practitioner.” After a couple minutes, they’re like, “OK. You’ve been taking care of me for 10 years.” The caring, and taking care of them properly, that overshadows everything. But they understand after a couple minutes with them.

What is an average day like in your work life?

I go to work, and I get there approximately 9:00. When I get there, I go through my… we have task lists which consist of medications that need refilling and chart review and such the like, and anything that somebody is asking me to find and co-sign, and such the like. I’ll start seeing patients as soon as they room my patients, and I’ll just go from room to room. It’s also different, because this is an office, so it’s sort of a uniform thing every day… and then go to lunch. Over my lunchtime I may fit in still… go over labs or finish up some charting, then start seeing patients again probably about 1:30 or 2. I work in a walk-in office, so let’s say today for example I was able to leave somewhere around 4:00 because nobody else was there. But there are days that it can go to 5:30 or 6:00. And then I come home and I get my laptop and I start my teaching part.

What separates a really good NP or DNP from an average one?

Definitely there are certain qualities that are important to be a nurse practitioner. But you know, I don’t think there’s any one good answer for that, as to what would separate a good from an average, because each person is their own person, and they will have different traits, of course. However, you have to have a love for what you’re doing. It actually has to be a passion, because every day we wake up and we make a conscious decision to care for complete strangers and to give part of ourselves — because we do, every day. That has to be something from within. Personally, I don’t think that is something that you can teach someone; it has to be from within. Also, being a nurse practitioner, you’re in a dynamic field of work. It’s one where you have to be willing to adapt to change, because not only do your patients change moment by moment, but the field of nursing is not static; it’s completely dynamic and changes every day. You have to be able to treat… a phenomenal, or a good nurse practitioner, has to be able to treat each patient as well as you’d want to be treated yourself. And also be a lifelong learner, because as I said, the field is dynamic and we have to stay up with the current methodologies to provide best care.

What excites and concerns you about the future of your field?

Let’s start with me being excited where I am. What excites me is that I’m in a position where, as I said before, I can affect change. Before, in being a nurse, you follow orders — you see what’s going on, but you have to wait until orders are given. I’m in a position where I assess, diagnose, and treat. It’s where I see the problem but I’m also a part of fixing that problem. So that, to me, is exciting every day. Challenges within the field are with more or less with policies and guidelines which need to be, I believe, uniform throughout the country for all nurse practitioners — autonomous practice, and guidelines — if it’s in one state, it needs to be carried over to the next. Prescriptive authority, such the like.

Back to your individual career: Do you have a moment or a memory of your own career that you’re especially proud of looking back on?

I have a few! I’m in a family practice, so I see one-day-old to somebody who's 110, if you live that long. This one kid came in — how old was he, proabably about nine? — he came in with his mom, and she said he had slept, and he woke up and had a stiff neck. I said, “OK, tell me about it?” She said he had slept on the couch. I said, “OK,” but something just was wrong, it just was not sitting right with me. After being with them for a while, I said I had to get some further studies done. And after a while we found out he had cancer of his jaw and his neck. So I was able to get him to the cancer institute, and he is a thriving 16, 17-year-old at this moment; cancer-free.

That reward is phenomenal. When I worked in the hospital it was phenomenal when you were able to — and I say this cautiously — when you are able to save lives. When you can report to family members that it’s going to be okay, and you see the look of relief on their face, and you know that you were a part of that, it’s awesome. You don’t necessarily get it from the patients. Well, I necessarily didn’t get it from the patients, because I was in the ICU so they were mostly asleep or sedated. In primary care the patients can come back to you and say, “Do you know, that because you sent me here…” There’s no reward greater. That makes my year. That’s definitely why we do it.

**And you also teach at Argosy University, correct?

I teach both Master’s and students who are going to get their baccalaureate degree. They have a fair idea of the degree that they’re seeking, yet not everybody is 100 percent sure of what they want to do with it. But they do know that that’s the first step itself. If they ask me, and I share… Because when I start, introduce myself first day of class, and my background, and tell them how I got there; I let them know where they are and the type of support they want to do, it is the first stepping-stone to get to that point. So they know that they need to have a Bachelor’s. But whether they want to go into administration, or a nurse practitioner, they know that it is essential to have that degree.

What qualities do your best students have?

They all vary, and everyone varies. One thing that I’m very cautious about is judging them in that way. The reason why I say that is you can have adult students — because the majority of my students are adults — you have adult students who really don’t work, and have enough time to think and have clarity in what they want to do and are able to express that, and at the same time you can have students who may have two jobs, and are really doing well in school but don’t have that time or that clarity to sit down and articulate where they want to be and what they want to do. I do know that everyone in my classes, in my baccalaureate classes, they have high aspirations. They all have high aspirations. As to what direction their aspirations are going, some aren’t quite sure. Some know that they want to advance where they are now or go further in management. It’s hard for me to say, pick out the crop, because they are all different and they are all so capable.

What is your advice to these students

What I tell them is that if you go into the field of nursing, without the underlying quality of wanting to care for patients, then don’t even bother. That’s what it takes, and it’s going to wear you down, and you’re going to leave it before it leaves you. I tell them to ask themselves, is this something that they want to do daily? Even on a day when you wake up and you feel like you have nothing left to give, your tank is empty, can you find enough inside to provide best care. If the answer is yes, then this is what you want to do. Do you want to be a life-long learner? If the answer is yes, then this is what you want to do. There are certain qualities that you have to have, and those are some of the basics. You have to genuinely care.

What do you mean by, “it can wear you down”?

Every day we wake up and we’re in the business of healing the sick. It’s not like we have a job where we get up every day and speak to people who are well. People come to see us because they’re not feeling well. Whether it’s a psychological issue, a social issue, a medical issue, there is something wrong. And when there’s something wrong, and this is your business, and every day people that you come into contact with is telling you that something’s wrong, you have to be able to handle that and appropriately place it. If you don’t, and if you don’t learn how to do this, then it can wear you down. Can you imagine seeing patients who, just for example, have terminal illnesses… ten patients who have terminal illnesses? Now, with each patient, you’re not only dealing with that terminal illness: you’re dealing with their families, you’re dealing with them psychologically… you’re dealing with an array of different problems. At the end of the day, you have to walk away and say, “I did my best. I put my best foot forward,” and not have a feeling of burden.

Dr. Campbell's Reading List:

  • The Richest Man in Babylon, by George Clason -- It’s an inspirational book. It just gives me inspiration to keep pushing forward, just keep pushing forward. It’s a motivational book for me. That’s what it does. I guess for people who have, especially stuck with school like me, having ten years of college, that takes a certain amount of self-determination. It adds to that for me.

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