Published on June 13, 2016

A nurse brings a patient’s perspective to ER care

A nurse brings a patient’s perspective to ER care

Carrie was not the focus of my story, which was an overview on the emergency room. But, I encountered her while she tended to a patient there. I asked her why she became an ER nurse, and that’s when I learned that hers is a story of survival and overcoming the odds.

She was born with what could have been a debilitating spinal disability, but after undergoing many operations, she can thrive today under intense physical and emotional pressure helping save the lives of others.

Her experience relying so much on other doctors and nurses inspired her to carry forward not only the power of modern medicine, but especially the compassion and understanding so critical to patients and their families in times of need. – Glenn Ritt


When she was born, Carrie O’Connor’s parents didn’t know if she would ever walk. She suffered from spina bifida and certain nerve damage, and doctors also braced them for the possibility their daughter could be brain damaged.

In Carrie’s case, the spinal cord was abnormally attached to tissues around the base of the spine, making it impossible for her spinal cord to move freely within the spinal canal.  It would never be cured, doctors told her parents, but could hopefully be managed.

Thirty-four years and 13 surgeries later, Carrie is a dynamic emergency care nurse working 40 hours a week in the Cape Cod Hospital Emergency Center. She is also the mother of two children, including a daughter who is autistic.

“I’ve been a patient my entire life. I know this world every which way. I feed off of its fast pace, its intensity,” she said. “I’m so fortunate that I can pass forward some of the knowledge, compassion and care I have received.”

Her journey has been harrowing and painful; sometimes discouraging, but never debilitating.  There is certainty only that tomorrow is uncertain.

But, through all her surgeries – the most recent of which was two years ago – Carrie has maintained a steadiness and strength typical of nurses who so often work at the edge of life and death in the emergency room.

She sees each patient with an intimacy and empathy sculpted by all those surgeries. She can connect with a parent by seeing her own mother and father hovering over her bedside. She can radiate confidence because she knows that anyone can overcome immense adversity.

And all this plays out each day, each week in the middle of Cape Cod Hospital’s Emergency Center, as she is surrounded by scores of other nurses, physicians, technicians and assistants tending around the clock to a never-ending succession of patients.

At this moment on a rainy Thursday morning, she is caring for three patients in adjoining rooms. At any one time, that number could reach five.

One man was rushed in by ambulance with his heart beating more than 200 times a minute. Carrie joined one of the shift’s four physicians to evaluate his condition and stabilize him. She ran an IV into his arm and began administering a drug to normalize his heart’s rhythm. It didn’t work.

The doctor quickly called for an alternative medication, and after only seconds, the patient’s heart kicked back into a normal beat.

“I felt on top of the world at that moment,” Carrie said. “It felt like, it felt like … winning.”

In a way, that seemed like an odd word to describe her feelings. But, it made sense. She’s been fighting her entire life through all those surgeries and all that pain and uncertainty – and each time, she has won.

“From as far back as I can remember, I have wanted to do this,” she said. “When I was younger, my dream was to become a pediatric neurosurgeon,” inspired by one of her own doctors. That dream motivated her throughout her teenage years at Falmouth High School.

Carrie’s first surgery was when she was only three months old. One of her feet has been reconstructed eight times. Her surgery two years ago was the most difficult of all.

“Surgeons had to remove a vertebra and literally move my spine down because the spinal cord still is tethered – or tangled – as it was at birth. I was out of work for nearly five months and now am one inch shorter,” she said.

Surgery was necessary. Her condition had begun to compromise her urinary and bowel functions, while contributing to more leg pain and loss of sensation in one of her feet similar to neuropathy in diabetes patients.

“I describe the surgery as relieving tension in a rope that is connected too tightly from one tree to another,” she explained.

“I was determined not to lose function,” she emphasized with determination flashing across her face.

Carrie is constantly on her feet moving from room to room, patient to patient while on the job.

“I take great pride that I work 40 hours a week, raise two children with my husband and find time to play in a woman’s softball league. Sure, there’s pain, and I probably should buy stock in Motrin, but it’s what I know,” she said.

Learn more about spina bifida.

Interested in working with experienced ER nurses, like Carrie? Cape Cod Healthcare is hiring – join us for one of our open house events showcasing Emergency Room Nursing on Thursday, June 16, 2016 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday, June 17, 2016 – 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Cape Cod Hospital. Learn more about nursing at Cape Cod Healthcare.