Spreading Your Wings: Career Alternatives for Nurses

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

My 30+ year nursing career has been an incredible journey — a personal journey of discovering who I am and what I am capable of doing, and a professional journey through the healthcare system that revealed how many different ways and places there are to use my skills and talents as a nurse.

My career took a nontraditional turn about 5 years into it. Partly by choice, partly by chance, I left my beloved emergency department (ED) when I relocated. I was unable to find an ED position on the day shift in my new location and I decided to explore other employment options. I interviewed for a staff position at a medical weight control center. Not only was I hired, but I was offered a head nurse position that had not yet been advertised.

After 10 months on the job, I was offered the position of center manager. I panicked at the thought of the responsibility. I reminded my superiors that I was “just a nurse” and didn’t know anything about sales, marketing, or finances. They understood my reservations but believed I could do the job. Much to my amazement, I gradually learned what I needed to know, and I realized that nurses do this all the time. Aren’t we constantly given new challenges, new equipment, new procedures, new regulations, and required to learn new techniques? I had discovered how my skills as a nurse transferred to other areas of healthcare and to the business world.

After working as the center manager of the medical weight control center, I held a series of interesting positions. These included managing the medical department for a health maintenance organization, coordinating activities for a company that did medical examinations for insurance companies, working in quality assurance and utilization review for a community hospital, and acting as an NCLEX-RN coordinator for a national test preparation company. I had no particular career plan during this time, but I was always learning something new. The more things I tried, the braver I got as I tested the limits of my comfort zone. Even though I was on the fringes of my profession in terms of what most people considered to be “a nurse,” I never doubted that I was contributing substantially to everything I did because I was a nurse.

I began to realize the value of my nursing skills and knowledge. I also discovered other attributes I had developed as a nurse, including my ability to deal effectively with people under adverse conditions, and the skills to manage, organize, and yes, even sell. Every time I had to convince a patient to adhere to a regimen, or follow though on a test, or present a new way of working to my department, I was selling. As a nurse, I had the ability to do many things at one time, could adapt to any situation and was resourceful, innovative, and flexible. Also important, I had learned to stay calm and to take charge in chaotic and volatile situations. Add leadership to the list!

Over the course of my career, I was often required to get up in front of a group and speak. When I had to address a group of physicians about reimbursement issues, I considered resigning and moving out of the country just to avoid the task. But after living through the experience, I began to realize that, as a nurse, I had developed the ability to teach. Every in-service I had presented, every orientation I had conducted, every formal teaching session I had done, prepared me to address groups such as this.

Eventually I found a way to bring together all of my skills, attributes, and experiences as a nurse. In 1995 I started my own business conducting seminars on career and professional development topics for nurses and presenting keynote addresses at nursing conferences, conventions, and healthcare facilities. Somewhere along the way I also became a writer. Once again, I discovered that my nursing background had prepared me for entrepreneurship. My communication skills, compassion, listening skills, and ability to teach and counsel all came into play. Additionally, all of the experiences I have had in the clinical setting have contributed to who I am, my personality, my ability to work independently, make decisions, and problem solve.

What is a nurse? We are healers, teachers, and nurturers. All of these things are still a big part of what I do. Occasionally, someone will ask me, “Why did you leaving nursing?” I quickly reply that I never left my profession and am still very much a nurse. Today I heal with words.

Nurses are multitalented, versatile individuals. We each have much to give and much to offer. Don’t be afraid to look outside of the traditional role. There are many ways to have a positive impact on patient care. We are vital at the bedside, but we are just as vital in other aspects of the healthcare delivery system. Being a nurse is about who you are, not about where you work. We must look deep inside of ourselves and find new directions for our profession. It is time to celebrate the versatility of nurses. Spread your wings and soar on a journey of discovery.

Copyright Nursing Spectrum, Greater Chicago/NE Illinois Edition, All rights reserved. Used with permission.