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By Cathie Ericson
When you think about nursing careers, you probably picture shifts spent in a clinical setting, administering medications, and running diagnostic tests. And while that’s a vital part of the profession, what you might not realize is the extensive variety of paths on which you can find nurses using their skills to help others, from nontraditional health care settings to business administration to advocacy.
In honor of Nurses Week, we’re highlighting three New England nursing professionals whose careers have been nontraditional, but each helpful and heroic in their own right.
From supporting newborns to supporting new treatments
A love of science and caretaking propelled Kate Wallis to pursue a nursing degree, but her 25-year trajectory illustrates the myriad of fascinating and diverse paths one can take. She started in a traditional setting in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which remains one of her favorite jobs for the opportunity it afforded her to bond with families in times of deep anxiety. In fact, that’s a key reason she didn’t study to become a physician; she saw that nurses were able to engage in meaningful interactions in a way physicians sometimes can’t.
But as Wallis started her own family, the rotating shifts in the NICU took a toll, and she transitioned to a pediatric clinic that leveraged her experience. After a family relocation, she landed at an allergy and asthma practice.
“Nursing allowed me an incredible amount of flexibility to explore different roles and opportunities,” Wallis says. “I found I could reinvent myself based on what suited my interest and availability at any given time.”
She then had her first foray into the insurance industry with a position in utilization management, where her perspective gave her a leg up in understanding the complexities of various plans and how changes might impact those who work in a clinical setting. Next came stints in pharmaceutical sales and at a medical device company, where her clinical experience was fundamental to her work reviewing adverse events.
Ultimately she decided she felt too removed from impacting patient care in these roles, and 11 years ago joined Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. She currently heads the newly established clinical innovation department, which was created after the health plan combined with Tufts Health Plan earlier this year. Her team’s goal is to make the latest emerging technologies (like digital therapeutics and precision medicine) available to members in a way that minimizes any cost increases and produces real world data that can inform the health care ecosystem.
“While my CV might make me look like a job hopper, each position has made use of my skill sets in interesting ways,” Wallis says. “I’ve been able to take roles that are fulfilling, but also have allowed me to manage my family’s needs.”
She recommends new nurses gain clinical experience first, but then not hesitate to explore and understand the freedom afforded by their degree.
“When people think of nursing as a career, it is often working in a hospital or clinic, which I loved. But by networking and being open to possibilities with a nursing degree you can re-imagine your career almost endlessly.”— Kate Wallis, head of clinical innovation, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan
Patient-centric care, everywhere
As a teen, Christopher Cuomo, from Hope Valley, R.I., was a classically trained concert pianist, a path that was disrupted when an accident caused major damage to his hand. The care he received during the arduous rehabilitation process sparked an interest in the medical profession, and he initially obtained his Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) license as a way to pay the bills while attending medical school.
But when a car accident landed Cuomo back in the hospital — where he ultimately endured 10 surgeries over the next seven years — he realized he wanted to bring his experience as a patient to the bedside and started nursing school. “It has been the most rewarding thing I have done,” he says. “We are the friendly face people see in between the shots, tests, and procedures.”
After six years at a local hospital, Cuomo recently turned to travel nursing as a way to make more money than traditional shift work and signed up with Fastaff Travel Nursing, which connects nurses with caregiving gigs around the world. “I knew as a travel nurse I would constantly be starting anew in an unfamiliar environment with different coworkers, but I also appreciate that what’s most important — the patients — is a constant,” he says. “People will always need help no matter where you are, and traveling to a variety of institutions has allowed me to bring my experiences to more people, hopefully touching many lives along the way.”
While he hasn’t yet traveled far and wide with his position, Cuomo appreciates that the agency connects him with opportunities at multiple facilities so he can pick the one of his choosing, and he is anticipating an out-of-state assignment in the fall.
“In a small state like Rhode Island, there are finite places to work as a staff nurse, but as a travel nurse you have an entire world at your fingertips.”
—Christopher Cuomo, travel nurse, Fastaff Travel Nursing
Two unexpected passions
After spending 13 years as an occupational therapist, Providence resident Lisa Wasson recognized she was limited in how she could help her patients without a nursing degree. She earned one while working full time and first took a position as a nurse in a long-term care facility, then decided to acquire hospital experience that would allow her to regularly practice a wider range of crucial nursing skills.
Eventually seeking more traditional hours as a new mom, Wasson interviewed for an intake post at HopeHealth, a hospice center. While the family-friendly schedule is what first appealed to her, she soon realized how much she enjoyed the work. “Most people don’t consider end of life as a nursing option, but you go into nursing to care for people, and hospice allows you to build those deep connections,” she says, adding that it provides the luxury of time to get to know patients and families, which can be more challenging in the hectic pace of a hospital.
Two years ago, Wasson transitioned to her current role as a clinical educator, in which she produces training programs for nurses and health care workers. As an introvert, it hadn’t occurred to her that she could enjoy standing in front of a room and teaching, but the director of education had approached her as an ideal candidate. She agreed to try and has developed a great affinity for the work. “It has been a gift to take the skills and knowledge I have acquired during my tenure here and share it with fellow clinicians,” she says.
Wasson encourages those who are pursuing a nursing career to keep an open mind as they explore their career path. She herself had initially assumed she’d work in maternity, but discovered it wasn’t for her after seeing her first delivery. “Never in a million years did I think I’d end up in hospice, but it’s been a perfect fit,” she says. And she urges those who are curious to look into it. “If it’s something you’re considering, then you’re the kind of person we are looking for.”
To nurses in every role and setting — from hospitals to hospice to health care plans and beyond — thank you for all you do.
This Nurses Week, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan celebrate the vital role that nurses play within the health care system, including their own nurse care managers, who empower and support members when complex health challenges arise.
To learn more about Harvard Pilgrim’s Clinical Care Program, including its Nurse Care Management team, visit:https://www.harvardpilgrim.org/public/working-with-a-harvard-pilgrim-nurse-care-manager