Leading amidst chaos: 5 life lessons from an emergency department nurse

31021855 - medical team working on patient in emergency room

As an emergency room nurse, Cathy McJannet has learned to make life-saving decisions in an instant. But with a career that relies on skills, judgment and compassion, she understands that emergency department nursing is not for everyone.

“It is a highly specialized type of nursing in which only a select number of nurses are suited to work in that type of environment,” McJannet said.

McJannet, who works at Sharp Coronado Hospital, got her start in nursing as a teenage volunteer at the Moncton Hospital in New Brunswick, Canada, where she realized her love for helping others.

“I became a nurse because I wanted to care for people and help them through challenging times as it relates to their health status,” said McJannet.

She then discovered a passion for teaching as a nursing officer in the military where she had the ability to work with people and help them understand different concepts and achieve their goals.

“Nothing makes me happier than to teach someone and watch that ‘light bulb’ go off as they really start to comprehend that difficult concept,” she said.

cathy-headshotFollowing her passion for education, McJannet partnered with UC San Diego Extension to develop the Emergency Department Nursing Certificate program, which offers focused education in emergency nursing skills and knowledge to licensed nurses.

“Being a nurse is about being committed to lifelong learning as healthcare is a dynamic state that is ever changing,” she said. “You don’t go to school, become a nurse and that’s it. You go to nursing school, become a nurse and continue your education for the rest of your working life.”

Making a difference in patients’ lives and the challenge of continuously learning in the emergency department is what pushes McJannet to continue her work. It’s not just a full-time job; it’s a calling – one that requires commitment and nerve. Here are some of the attributes McJannet says are necessary to be successful as an emergency department nurse:


  1. Learn to be uncomfortable and overcome it. Emergency department nurses need to learn how to deal with all sorts of patient situations. “You need to have the patience to handle those who verbally and physically abuse medical staff and be able to create calm out of chaos,” she said.

  2. Be able to prioritize. The ideal emergency department nurse has highly developed clinical judgment skills and is able to make decisions quickly. “To the outsider, the emergency department may appear to be chaotic and confusing,” McJannet said. “But emergency department nurses thrive on the challenge of providing care and compassion to their patients and families while performing life-saving interventions.”  

  3. Stay healthy. It’s not enough to be mentally sharp but you also have to be physically fit as well. “To work in an emergency department, you have to be able to sustain 12 hours of a fast-paced, high stress environment,” she said.

  4. Expect the unexpected and be flexible. Emergency department nurses need to be able to go from a calm, quiet environment to maximum speed in a nano-second. “You could be working with a two-month-old baby that is critically ill and your next patient will be a trauma from a car accident or family crisis,” she said. “Just when you think you have seen it all, there is a new adventure just around the corner.”

  5. Have a sense of humor. Apparently even for emergency room nurses laughter is the best medicine. “That is just one method used to combat the constant stress that comes with working in that high acuity medical environment,” McJannet said.

“Nurses are taught from the beginning of their career to understand that a commitment to lifelong learning is a part of belonging to the profession,” she said. “My favorite saying is that you can be a nurse who works in the ED or you can be an ED nurse. I choose to be an ED nurse.”

Interested in becoming an emergency department nurse? Learn more about UC San Diego Extension’s Emergency Department Nursing certificate.

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.

What's your story?

Share your accomplishments, advice, and goals for a chance to be featured.