My Experience as a Nurse: An Interview with Attorney Catherine Meehan
Prior to joining the Steinberg Law Firm, attorney Catie Meehan earned a nursing degree and practiced as a registered nurse. In this post, we interviewed Catie on her experiences, her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic, and how that relates to her practice as a South Carolina workers’ compensation and personal injury lawyer.
You worked as a registered nurse prior to becoming a lawyer? Where did you obtain your nursing education and how long did you work as nurse for?
After earning my first college degree at the University of Notre Dame, I moved to Charleston to attend the Medical University of South Carolina where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing. I then worked as a nurse at the MUSC Children’s Hospital for three years.
In what areas of nursing did you work?
I spent my three years as a nurse in pediatric nursing caring for children from two days old to four years old.
What was the best thing about being a nurse and what was the hardest thing about being a nurse?
Nursing was both an incredibly rewarding and an incredibly demanding job. Nursing was physically, mentally, and emotionally tiring, and I finished most twelve-hour shifts exhausted. However, I also left each shift knowing I had made a real difference in my patients’ lives. Children are parents’ greatest gifts, and parents trusting me with the care of their children both humbled and motivated me.
Do you have friends from your time as a nurse that are on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic and what are you hearing from them?
I met some of my best friends working at the Children’s Hospital, and I remain close to them today. My nurse friends shared that the initial days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic were especially scary. Now, the hospitals have implemented policies and procedures that make them feel safer caring for COVID-19 patients. One of the most challenging things my friends are dealing with now is keeping their families safe. Many of them are currently living in a different part of the home than the rest of their families. One of my friends made the difficult decision to send her young children to stay with a relative for a few weeks to keep them safe. Most of my nursing friends have young children and being away from them is difficult for both my friends and their children. To me, the willingness to live apart from their children and families reflects the true selflessness of healthcare workers.
Did you ever deal with any disease outbreak while working as a nurse?
While working as a nurse, I never dealt with a disease outbreak and certainly never dealt with anything remotely close to the current coronavirus pandemic. However, I did care for patients with contagious diseases for which we had to take extra precautions. For example, I cared for a few patients potentially infected with tuberculosis. Those patients were in negative air pressure rooms, and nurses had to wear special personal protective equipment when treating them. With all patients that had infectious diseases, the nurses had to maintain “contact precautions” meaning all individuals entering those patients’ rooms had to wear plastic gowns, gloves, and a mask.
Were you ever afraid for your safety when working as a nurse?
While nurses may have to put their fear in the back of their minds to do their jobs, the honest answer is that there were times that I was concerned for my safety while working as a nurse. Most of those times were caring for individuals with highly communicable diseases. It never altered my level of care, but I definitely followed all precautions to avoid becoming infected myself. From my experience as a nurse, I suspect the nurses treating COVID-19 patients are pushing their fears to the side and delivering the best possible care to each patient.
What are your thoughts on the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and how concerned are you?
From everything I’ve learned over the past several weeks, I believe the coronavirus pandemic is extremely serious. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented situation for the United States, at least for nearly all Americans born in the last hundred years. The need to rapidly respond to the disease without existing procedures makes the pandemic even more challenging. At first, like so many others, I thought COVID-19 was equivalent to the seasonal flu, but the number of deaths COVID-19 has already caused evidences the severity of the disease. Everyone needs to take this virus seriously and practice social distancing to protect themselves and our community.
Did you ever work with ventilators and do you think we need to be concerned about a shortage of ventilators?
I never personally worked with ventilators since my nursing unit was not an acute care unit, but I believe we need to be concerned about a shortage of ventilators. Patients that require ventilators rely on those machines to breathe for them. If there are no ventilators available, patients will not have the life-sustaining support they need. We have already seen that the most severe coronavirus cases require ventilators, so if we do not slow the rate of infection, there is a very real possibility that our nation will experience a shortage of ventilators.
Did you ever have to wear personal protective equipment while working as a nurse? Does it make the job more difficult? What do you think when you see pictures in the media or on social media of nurses and doctors with bruised and tired faces after a shift wearing personal protective equipment?
I wore personal protective equipment many times while working as a nurse. On most shifts, I cared for at least one patient with contact precautions, meaning nurses wore gowns, gloves, and masks every time we entered the patient’s room. Wearing personal protective equipment makes a nurse’s job much more difficult. Because the gowns are plastic, they do not breathe and become hot. The masks also trap air and make nurses hot. I cannot imagine working a twelve-hour shift wearing personal protective equipment for the whole shift. The heat and discomfort that having to do so would create would take the already tiring job of caring for sick patients for twelve hours and make it much more draining.
We are hearing reports that healthcare professionals face a higher risk of contracting coronavirus and reports of healthcare professionals sickened by the coronavirus. Do you believe that healthcare professionals are likely to face a higher risk of contracting coronavirus and why?
Healthcare professionals are likely to face higher risk of contracting coronavirus because the nature of their work places them in close contact with COVID-19 positive patients. We know the virus can live on surfaces, in addition to spreading by droplets (particles from sneezing, coughing, talking, etc.). As a result, healthcare workers are exposed to the coronavirus not only through contact with patients, but also just by being in the hospital due to contact with surfaces, equipment, and other workers in the hospital.
Why did you decide to leave nursing and become a lawyer?
While I loved nursing and caring for patients, I was drawn to the legal and risk management aspects of the hospital operations. I originally thought I wanted to be a clinical nurse legal consultant, but after three years of nursing, I decided to go to law school. Nursing requires a boundless passion for the work. Nursing is hard. We saw lots of sad situations, and in my specific field, those were sad situations involving helpless children. These situations inevitably take a toll on nurses emotionally, and I decided I wanted to transition into caring for people in a legal setting instead of in a medical setting. Knowing what I know of nursing from my experiences, I can say that nurses are generally amazing people who do a difficult job with a smile and without expecting any thanks.
In what area of law do you practice and have you represented any nurses or other healthcare professionals?
I primarily represent clients with workers’ compensation and personal injury claims. I have represented nurses, doctors, veterinarians, hospital dietary workers, phlebotomists, environmental services workers, patient care techs, and hospital administrators. I have represented healthcare professionals employed in nearly every area of the field.
How do you use your training, skills, and experience as a nurse to assist you in representing your clients as a lawyer?
To be a nurse requires empathy. I do not think a person can be a successful nurse without an innate desire to help others. Practicing law is similar to nursing in that it is a demanding career that requires a true desire to help others. My clients have been injured on the job or injured in car wrecks and rely on me to get them the help they need and deserve, whether that be medical treatment or weekly workers’ compensation checks so they can pay their bills while out of work. I also use my medical training and knowledge from nursing assists with reading medical records and understanding the medical aspects of my cases.
What do you hope that the lawyers at the Steinberg Law Firm can do to help nurses and other healthcare professionals battling the coronavirus?
I hope the lawyers at the Steinberg Law Firm can help nurses and other healthcare professionals by answering questions related to workers’ compensation rights and filing claims for those infected with the virus. I hope that our assisting them with those issues and knowing that we are here for them will take away some small part of the burden they are bearing as they combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Have you done anything or changed anything in your life in relation to the coronavirus pandemic?
I am trying to do my part to fight the coronavirus pandemic by staying home and practicing social distancing. All of the public health professionals have told us that if we each do our part and stay home, we can flatten the curve. Luckily, my profession is one that I can do from home, so I am working from home. Also, my children (a two-year-old girl and a four year old girl) and I made cards for individuals in nursing homes and sent those to them in the hope it will brighten their days while they are not permitted to have visitors.
What would you tell members of the public to do to help the healthcare professionals fighting COVID-19?
I would encourage everyone to stay home. My impression is that the seriousness of the coronavirus has been difficult for many people to conceptualize because if the virus has not personally affected you, it’s hard to “see” the danger. All of the medical professionals state that individuals can be positive for COVID-19 and be asymptomatic. So even if you are not experiencing any symptoms of the virus, please stay home. The healthcare workers in our community are endangering their own health by exposing themselves to the virus while at work, and they are sacrificing so much more for us. Many of them cannot be with their families due to the risk of infecting their family members. I am sure that many healthcare workers are experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and fear. Anything we can do to shorten the duration and reduce the effects of this pandemic helps those healthcare workers that go to work every day to help our community. I believe we not only all of our community’s healthcare workers our gratitude, but also owe it to them to stay home.
Most employers must carry workers’ compensation insurance, so if you are injured on the job in South Carolina, you can get workers’ compensation benefits. However, you must follow certain procedures…