Dr. Marc Gorelick, president and CEO, progressive pediatrics blog

Our chief nursing officer on her life as a nurse: how being an immigrant influences her and why her first day was one of her hardest.

Nurses have my admiration and respect every day of the year. But May is National Nurses Month, so it’s even more important to show nurses how deeply we appreciate them.  

I invited Caroline Njau, senior vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Children’s Minnesota, to share a bit of her personal nursing story; including who inspired her to choose nursing and why it’s nothing like what you see on TV. 

Caroline’s words:

How I became a nurse 

I was born in Kenya, and my family immigrated to the United States when I was 16. It was hard, as a teenager, to make such a big transition to a new country; learning a new language and culture and seeing how race played such a big part in American society. I didn’t experience that in Kenya. I was never referred to as a Black person until I came to the United States.  

That was a big change and a big lesson for me. It humbled me and made me not want to judge people that way. The challenges I faced as an immigrant shaped how I view health care. I wanted to care for people for who they were, not because of what they looked like, where they came from or what they could afford. 

Our family settled in Georgia and my mom became a nursing assistant at a senior home. Every night she’d tell me how great it was to work alongside the nurses, how smart and knowledgeable they were. How they treated the residents with dignity and honored their last wishes. I thought, wow, the nurses see both sides. They help the residents, and they also help families who may be struggling to let new people care for their loved ones. Nurses had to build trust with families and help them through some hard transitions.

My mom would also tell me how she would learn from the nurses how to treat each resident: what they liked, how to awaken them, etc. The nurses would teach my mom those important details so she could best support the patient, the family and the nurses.  

One day my mom said, “Caroline, I think you should be a nurse. I think you’d love it because you’re caring, and you’d get to use your brain at the same time.” She knew I loved science and math and learning in general. I was only 17, but I agreed with her and decided I’d study nursing in college.  

Nursing school graduation
My mom and me on my nursing school graduation day.

My first day  

The first day of my first job was one of my hardest days. I was working at Emory University Hospital on the medical-surgical floor. I cared for patients with all different conditions and illnesses, both acute and chronic. I always approached my work as a calling; it was my duty to help my patients get well so they could go home.  

So, it was my very first day, I was fresh out of orientation, and a patient I was caring for coded, which means he went into cardiac arrest. Immediately I gathered a team to help resuscitate him, but he didn’t make it. I was devastated. It’s a memory that will never leave me. It forced me to question everything. Did I miss something? Did orientation not prepare me well enough? Did I know what I was doing?  

It took a long time for me to process what happened and finally realize I did know what I was doing, that I was a good nurse and that I did everything I could to save him. But that experience forced me to reconcile with death right away. It taught me how to support a person who’s dying, and how to support a grieving family. It taught me how to work through a hard thing so it wouldn’t haunt me the rest of my life.  

What you might not know about nursing 

There are a couple of things the average person might not know about nursing. First, nurses can look at a patient and know instantly if something isn’t right. Nobody does that better than a nurse. It’s a science. We call it guts and instincts. We have the guts and the instincts to make a quick and accurate assessment because we have the knowledge. I also think most people don’t understand the mental weight of being a nurse. Nurses care for people’s lives. It may look easy on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but the mental pressure can be exhausting, even debilitating if nurses don’t get the support they need.  

That’s why it’s so important that we focus on wellness for nurses. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Nurses need to keep filling their cups, taking care of themselves. That can mean getting a new certification, finding an activity that gives them joy, focusing on their mental wellness or being part of a social event with peers. Mentally, physically, emotionally, socially; there are many ways we can care for ourselves.  

Caroline with nurses
Me with three of our fantastic Children's Minnesota nurses. From left to right: Jenny Norling, Megan Otto and Katie Allen

Children’s Minnesota nurses amaze me 

It brings me joy to see how our nurses here at Children’s Minnesota not only care for sick children, but also care for families. I saw that recently when I was in the ICU. A nurse was checking carefully to make sure a child had everything they needed, but she was also checking to make sure the family’s needs were being met. Did they have sleeping arrangements at the hospital? Did they need help with how to talk to their other children about what was going on with their sibling who was in the hospital? The nurse was answering all kinds of questions.  

Our Children’s Minnesota nurses are educating and supporting families every single day. They never cease to amaze me. 

Marc Gorelick, president and CEO

Marc Gorelick, MD
President, chief executive officer

Marc Gorelick, MD, is the president and chief executive officer (CEO) at Children's Minnesota. He is deeply committed to advocacy issues that impact children's health, sustainability and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.

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Julianna Olsen