Shelley Murphy-Coit, MSN, RN, CNL

Not many people obtain their master’s in nursing after first getting a bachelor’s degree in theater. That’s the path taken by Shelley Murphy-Coit, MSN, RN, CNL. She spent many years trying to make it as an actor in New York City, waiting tables and bartending on the side. She then took jobs in apartment management and construction while performing in Atlanta’s regional and community theater. When the housing market crashed in 2008 and job opportunities dwindled, she was forced to rethink her career path.

Why did you decide to become a nurse?

My like for science and healthcare always had been there, it just was in a different arena. Before I got my degree in theater I was on track for a two plus two program: two years at a core college then two years at MCG (Medical College of Georgia) for physical therapy. Then at University of Georgia I had a really good time, and my grades didn’t reflect being competitive to stay in that program. So that’s when I discovered theater. When I thought about going back to school, physical therapy seemed limiting because of my age and lack of variety in that job field. Nursing school looked really good.

I had to take some prerequisite sciences courses to apply to nursing school. In doing that I moved back to Augusta and lived with my mother. That probably was the biggest admission of a failure in needing to rebuild. Financially it was the best thing to do, moving home was smart. I got a job waiting tables part-time so I had that flexibility for studying, working and helping mom.

What nursing degree did you obtain?

The MSN, CNL program was designed for people who already had a degree in another non-nursing field. Mine was probably the most out-there degree to go into nursing. We all came out with a master’s degree, but we were new nurses in the field.

It’s a sixteen-month program, it’s very intensive and you don’t get a summer break. It’s jam packed. That’s another reason I needed to move home: financial stability. Between the clinical hours and community hours we had to cover, plus classwork and online work, it’s a very intensive program. Yet we didn’t lose anybody in the program, they have a high graduation rate.

What is your current job?

I’m a recovery nurse in a post anesthesia care unit (PACU). When they come out of surgery, we wake them up, treat their pain, make sure their vital signs are good and they’re breathing. And then we send them on their way. I call it “turn and burn” nursing. The minimum time we have a patient is maybe twenty or thirty minutes, and sometimes if we have to hold them for a while you might have them for a couple of hours. In my twelve-hour shift I probably average seven patients.

My first nursing position was in the neuro-ICU. I learned a lot really fast. It’s a high environment for burnout though because the patients are total care. You’ve got to do everything for them. It’s physically demanding. It’s also mentally demanding because with neurology it’s not something that you can see, like wounds. With neuro it’s so subtle. There’s a lot of pressure because you’re always afraid you’re going to miss that one thing. 

Then I moved into case management which was an option with a master’s degree. I enjoyed it but realized I missed bedside care. PACU is nice because it’s not physically demanding and constant. You’re not so focused on every nuance of their neuro status for twelve hours. It’s a nice happy medium of caring for patients and self-preserving my own sanity. 

What do you like most about nursing?

I like caring for patients. You feel like you can make a difference for them. You get to talk to families and help with education. I just like being in the middle of their lives for that one little moment. It feels good when things go well. I also appreciate being there for comfort with families when things aren’t going well.

In my sick, twisted sense of humor, I like gross things too. Nursing is great for people who like disgusting stuff because there’s a plethora of it.

I’ve held all three of my nursing positions at the same hospital, Augusta University Medical Center. That is another great thing about nursing, there can be many job opportunities within one organization allowing you to maintain benefits and paid leave. There’s so much variety in what you can do as a nurse, especially if you can get a master’s. You’re not locked into one kind of job.

What are some challenges you face?

Physically the job is very demanding. It reminded me very quickly the difference between myself and my younger counterparts. I’ve had to adopt having reading glasses with me all the time. In home life, the days that I work my husband and I really don’t see each other, but that’s just the nature of the job. But it’s better than Monday through Friday, day in and day out stress. Every day it’s a new job, it’s a new set of patients and a new set of problems. 

How did your past careers help you with nursing?

There’s a lot of ties between waiting tables and nursing. The stress is in the moment, it’s while you’re there, it’s who you’re working with. And when they’re gone it’s over and you start over again. From a performing perspective, I had that confidence of knowing how to talk to people, knowing how to listen to people and react to what they say. That’s really what acting is: listening and reacting. I see younger nurses who are afraid to talk to families and are sometimes even afraid of patients. They’re still learning how to take the information that’s being fed to them and react to it. For me that was not an issue. It was just the medical skills that I needed to develop. As far as the relationship with patients, families and doctors, and working as a team, that all came from my acting. Even waiting tables, it’s a service industry of working as a team and being able to read your table and see what they need and what they want. 

What advice would you give someone considering nursing?

Make sure you’re ready for the amount of studying and work that it takes to get through it. I was a better student in my 40s than I ever was in my 20s. I think a lot of people would find that. For students in school, put in the work and get through the courses, but the skills that are going to carry you through as a nurse you’re going to learn in your first job. Then you’re going to continue to learn forever. You never stop learning as a nurse. Have an open mind about the jobs that are out there. The beauty of it is if you don’t like your first job, look in different arenas. To me it would never be a wasted degree.

Heather Lusk
May 9, 2021

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