As then-president of the Emergency Nurses Association in 2020, Mike Hastings gave countless interviews about the coronavirus and the impact of COVID-19 on emergency rooms.
Then James Patterson and Matt Eversmann reached out with a unique proposal that would eventually grow into the new book, “E.R. Nurses: True Stories from America’s Greatest Unsung Heroes.” The book is out Oct. 11, syncing well with Emergency Nurses Week, which runs Oct. 10-16.
“It was presented like, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you, but not necessarily about COVID,’” Hastings said. “I was like, ‘I would love to talk about something that’s not COVID.’”
Hastings, then a clinical manager in the Swedish Edmonds emergency room and now a Lynnwood-based consultant for Philips’ Healthcare Transformation Services, served as a guide of sorts for Patterson and Eversmann. He shared his own stories, but also introduced them to others who had similar experiences to share.
The final product, Eversmann said, “is a glimpse underneath the hood of a profession we know nothing about.”
Patterson, one-man bestselling literary industrial complex, and Army veteran Eversmann first teamed up on “Walk in My Combat Boots: True Stories from America’s Bravest Warriors.” They were quickly struck by how similar the stories that grew into “E.R. Nurses” were to those of combat veterans.
“Now we’re talking to these emergency room nurses who are basically deployed every day for their entire career,” Eversmann said. “There’s no redeployment to kind of get refit. This is what they do 365 days a year, 12 to 15 hours a shift, forever, and that was just startling to me. It’s incredible, I mean like it really is amazing.”
And while society is starting to see the toll that combat takes on our soldiers, Patterson said, few are thinking about what goes down in your average American emergency room on a daily basis. Especially in the time of coronavirus.
“They are making some moves in terms of understanding what trauma does to a lot of these men and women [soldiers],” Patterson said. “And with a lot of nurses, I just got, ‘Well, it’s just part of the job.’ Well, yeah, kind of — but maybe not. And so there’s a lot that can be done. I just saw a thing that said 60-some percent of the people feel that nurses should make more money.”
In the end, Patterson and Eversmann said they felt a duty to relay the stories they heard, much like they did with “Boots.”
“We look at it as a little bit of a thank you,” Patterson said, “but an honest thank you, like, ‘We’re going to go and try to get your stories out here.’”
What emerges is an incredibly personal journey as they recount dozens of harrowing stories that are routinely treated as mundane experiences, a clock-in, clock-out mentality that’s hard to grasp. Eversmann did most of the interviews with nurses from a wide range of backgrounds and handed the results to Patterson. He wrote fast-paced chapters in the five- to seven-page range that mimicked the breakneck speed of the ER on a full-moon Friday night.
The authors quickly realized that ER nurses don’t see their everyday heroism as much more than another shift. Hastings confirmed this after reading an early copy of the book. He was amazed by the stories that emerged, even though he should not have been surprised.
“This is what we do day in and day out,” Hastings said. “You suck it up, you face it, and then you move on and go to the next thing.”
An emergency room is an odd and dynamic place where all kinds of human drama plays out. It’s not very much like what you see on TV. Life alternates between long, quiet stretches, which nevertheless harbor heartbreaking moments, and five-alarm emergencies that drop out of the sky unexpectedly like a comet and offer no time to reflect.
For emergency room employees, intense moments of shared emotion often end in mystery as patients move to surgery, other departments or back onto the street. Once in a while, a patient comes back through to say thank you.
“Mike has that one story, which is actually one of my favorites, where this kid accidentally gets shot at home, 2 or 3 years old,” Patterson said. “And when Mike sees him later, this kid is running down a hallway in a Superman outfit. I mean, that’s rare, but it’s one of those stories where it goes from terrible tragedy to kind of a good ending. And that’s in that spirit of thank you.”
Though the coronavirus wasn’t the topic, the shadow hangs over the profession and any conversation with nurses or other medical personnel. If a nursing career is an everyday deployment, the ranks are thinning due to myriad issues that are only exacerbated by the pandemic.
“So you look at the profession as a whole and you think, ‘OK, what is this going to look like five, 10 years down the road,’” Hastings said. “And we know that because of the added stress of COVID, we have a lot of people that are leaving the profession. And we already knew prior to COVID we were already facing a national shortage of nurses. And so now what does that look like? So, I mean, it’s scary.”
Hastings’ new job as a consultant is supposed to be nonclinical. But the truth is it’s been all-hands since March 2020.
“Here at the hospital I’m at right now, their staffing shortages are so critical I’ve been the charge nurse,” he said. “I just broke from the floor just so I can do this [interview]. So you have administrators that are out there doing everything they can, just because we have the patients that are coming in, but we just don’t have the staff. So, yeah, I don’t know where we go from this.”
Mike Hastings worked in the emergency room at Swedish Edmonds. A previous version of this story stated he worked at Swedish Mill Creek in Everett.