When Heather Underhill was a small child sitting in the back seat of her parents’ car, she would get upset when an ambulance got stuck in traffic. “Someone in there is sick!” she would shout, and often start to cry. Even as a kindergartener, Heather wanted to be on that ambulance helping whoever was in need. “As soon as I turned 16 I became an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), and then I graduated from high school and went to college and nursing school,” she recalled. “Honestly, nursing is the only thing I ever wanted to do.”
As a college freshman, Underhill worked as an emergency room technician, a role she continued to have through nursing school. She earned paramedic credentials in both Virginia and North Carolina. “I think my first responder emergency medicine experience really prepared me for anything I might experience in nursing,” Underhill explained. “You see more blood and trauma as a first responder. I was able to handle it, so I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Underhill spent time working in neonatal intensive care, but has primarily worked as an emergency room nurse, in both civilian and military hospitals. Because of the shortage of nurses, she served for a while as a traveling nurse, doing 13-week rotations at hospitals around the country that were short-staffed. While coming into a new situation with no orientation was challenging, Underhill learned a lot on every assignment.
A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Underhill can stay calm in any situation, but that doesn’t mean she shuts off her emotions. “You never lose your true feelings,” she said. “There have been times I cried, like the first time I did CPR on an infant—he was only two weeks old. I cried while I was doing it, but I still did what I had to do. When I have this uniform on I have a job to do. I’ve been scared, nervous, or mad, but I get the job done. You have to rely on your coworkers and supervisor to debrief afterward and help you deal with the emotions.”
Underhill was working at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point when the emergency room and inpatient facilities closed down. “I enjoyed working on base,” Underhill recalled. “My brother is in the Navy—the military runs in my family. So when I saw an ad for a job on base with the Society, I immediately applied.”
Making the transition from emergency medicine to visiting nursing proved to be a challenge for Heather. “I was used to working 12- or 24-hour shifts since I was 16 years old,” she explained. “I had never worked a Monday through Friday job. I don’t know how people get their errands done!”
“It also took some time for me to realize everything wasn’t an emergency and everyone didn’t need me right away. I could actually take a breath.” Underhill still feeds her need for adrenaline by working part-time as a paramedic, but she does value the opportunity to stay with clients as long as they need her. “It’s great knowing you can help someone when their spouse is deployed, and that you’re there to reassure them or be a shoulder to cry on.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to be with some of my elderly clients until the day they pass, knowing you’re helping them and are there for them. I had one client who was diagnosed with cancer and I was his visiting nurse until the day he died. Now I see his wife who was recently diagnosed with cancer. That family relies on me and feels comfortable with me being there.”
“I have another elderly client who I’ve been visiting for 10 years. She’s 93 years old and volunteered for the Society back in the 1950s.” She continues to have a good quality of life, in part because Society nurses are there for her.
“It’s the same with mother-baby clients—they come to trust you,” she said. “Some clients have had multiple children and they call you when they have another baby. Or you run into them and they say, ‘look how big this guy is—I kept breastfeeding until he was one because of you.’ That’s how I know I make a difference.”
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso