Ӱ nursing grad thrives in the heart of high-stakes medicine

Published May 6, 2024

䳧’s School of Nursing consistently ranks among the best in California. Every year, the school matriculates some 265 students, many of whom get their on-the-job training at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center. It is a symbiotic relationship that has benefited the university, the hospital and the community for decades. In celebration of National Nurses Week, which begins today, we pay tribute to the work of our nursing alumni and the important work they do.  

Registered Nurse Kirsten Shumaker ’20 stands in a loose huddle in the middle of MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center’s cardiac care unit.  

It’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Shumaker is about to begin her 12-hour shift. The huddle is a chance for the night shift charge nurse to update the day crew on each of the ward’s 15 patients — some of whom have yet to wake up from open-heart surgeries they had days, or even weeks, ago. But before the briefing, the charge nurse reads from a piece of paper.  

“This is the thought of the day,” she says. “When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is hard.’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’ That’s Sydney J. Harris.”  

If the quote is meant to provoke a deeper examination of the context of suffering, this is not a bad place to do it. The third-floor wing provides intensive care for individuals with acute heart conditions. Many here are on life support. Some are hooked up to machines that breathe for them, or that keep their hearts pumping. One cardiac arrest survivor wears a cooling device to reduce his body temperature and preserve his brain function during recovery.   

The somber reality of any cardiac care unit, or CCU, is that outcomes can be dire. And yet, for Shumaker — a registered nurse who graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) just four years ago — this is exactly where she wants to be.  

“Every aspect of nursing is so important,” says Shumaker, 31. “But my version of being the best nurse I can be is taking care of the sickest patients in the hospital, and I can do that now.”  

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Long Beach Memorialcare of Long Beach Nurse Kirsten Shumaker adjusts settings on a machine..
Ӱ School of Nursing grad Kirsten Shumaker attends to a patient in the cardiac care unit (CCU) of MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center. 

Shumaker is one of many Ӱ grads on staff at the MemorialCare Long Beach, known for its nationally acclaimed services. She sports navy scrubs and long blonde hair that she pulls back in a ponytail when things get busy — which they are wont to do in this unit. Normally she is assigned certain patients, but on this day, she is working as a “float,” a job that includes filling in for other nurses when they go on breaks.  

One of the first patients she sees is a man in his 50s who is awake and stable and hooked to a ventilator that pushes pressurized air into his lungs through a face mask.  

The room is dim as Shumaker pulls on a pair of rubber gloves and offers the man an oral swab — a small, moistened sponge on the end of what looks like a Q-tip. 

“Here you go my friend,” she says, lifting the mask. 

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Long Beach Memorialcare of Long Beach Nurse Kirsten Shumaker checks the vitals of patients on a monitor.
Shumaker speaks with a fellow nurse at one of the unit's two nursing stations. The monitor in front of her displays the vital signs of every CCU patient in real time.  

The man sips from the swab then asks for another, then another.   

“I know your mouth is so dry from this machine,” she says. She repositions the mask, striving for a comfortable fit. “Sorry, I know it’s kind of tight,” she says.  

Though barely audible through the thick plastic, the man gives her a thumbs up. 

“You’re the best,” he says.  

From waitstaff to nurse  

Shumaker didn’t always want to be a nurse. Although math came naturally to her in high school, she chose to forgo college and work in the restaurant industry for years.  

“It stressed my mom out so bad,” she recalls with a laugh.  

It was her mom who suggested nursing, and after accompanying her stepfather to a veteran’s hospital, she saw how meaningful a career in medicine could be. Shumaker is glad she went back to school but has no regrets about her journey. In fact, she thinks her restaurant experience may have given her a leg up.  

“Really, like, nursing and serving are the same thing,” she says. “You have so many things going on in your brain. ‘This guy needs his check. This guy needs a juice.’  It’s the same sort of time management.” 

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Long Beach Memorialcare of Long Beach Nurse Kirsten Shumaker checks on a patient.
Shumaker, right, checks on a patient alongside veteran RN Vivian Miller. “Patient care is the same,” Miller says of her years in nursing. “It’s only the technology that changes.”

Shumaker vividly recalls her very first patient — “an older diabetic man that needed a leg amputation.” It was only her first semester, she says, but nursing students are expected to work in hospitals alongside RNs through every stage in the schooling process.  

“I remember being very awkward,” she says of the encounter. “I remember the wife being there. She could really pick up on that, and she was helping me.”  

It was intimidating, but those real-world experiences — known as clinicals — are “the most critical part of nursing school,” she says. “You apply everything in clinicals. It’s hard to grasp everything in lecture when you don’t do it hands-on.”  

Shumaker says her Ӱ experience provided a strong foundation. 

"I especially appreciated my first semester," she says, getting to learn the fundamentals from professors like Sharon Konrad, an assistant professor. "Sharon Konrad was just an excellent mentor and professor. Getting us all prepared for that world was really helpful." 

Shumaker worked in various wards at MemorialCare Long Beach during her clinicals, which never failed to underscore the crucial role played by nurses. 

“We’re the ones seeing the changes happen,” she says. “We’re the eyes and ears for the doctors. They come in usually once a day, so they may not see these major changes. That is a huge thing I learned in nursing school: Nurses do everything. I didn’t know that.”   

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It's a busy day in the critical care unit at Memorialcare Medical Center of Long
“Our unit is especially sick right now,” says Shumaker, seen here checking the vital signs of a patient on display in one of the nurse’s stations.

MemorialCare Long Beach has partnered with Ӱ to train an estimated 2,000 nurses over the last 20 years, says Karen Walker, the hospital’s manager of clinical operations. She says many were hired, which is part of the reason MemorialCare has been able to reach its goal of having more than 80 percent of its registered nurses graduate with a BSN. 

Michael Williams, director of the School of Nursing, reiterates the quality of The Beach’s program. “Our students consistently achieve a perfect pass rate on their licensing exams, and are quickly employed as nurses,” he says. “We are blessed to have outstanding students working with outstanding faculty.” 

A busy day ahead  

Before the day is out, Shumaker — who is 22 weeks pregnant with her first child — will provide care for a 77-year-old man fresh out of open-heart surgery, his eyes still taped shut and a bandage running the length of his sternum. She will untangle and remove a mass of tubes and wires connecting a 73-year-old woman to an array of devices and medication. She will remove a long, rubber catheter from the jugular vein of a surgical patient; help wheel a man who has suffered a massive heart attack down the hall for surgery; and respond to a Code Blue in another unit, where a patient will need emergency intubation.  

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Long Beach Memorialcare of Long Beach Nurse Kirsten Shumaker extracts medicine from a vial.
A registered nurse since 2021, Shumaker spends most of her 12-hour shift on her feet. On this day she is a “float,” filling in for other nurses when they take their breaks.

Before all that happens, though, there is a brief period, a couple of hours into Shumaker's shift, when the ward is relatively quiet. 

She allows herself a snack — protein cereal with sliced bananas — to prevent second-trimester queasiness, and then decides it's a good time to complete one of her tasks for the day: collecting data to make sure each CCU patient is being moved or turned every two hours to protect against pressure wounds, a hazard associated with chronic immobility.  

Shumaker begins gathering paperwork, then pauses and looks up. Knowing she’s being shadowed for the day, she is apologetic: “I feel like I’m being really boring,” she says. To which one is tempted to ask: “Compared to what?” 

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Long Beach Memorialcare of Long Beach Nurse Kirsten Shumaker in the hallway of the critical care unit.
“We’re the eyes and ears for the doctors,” Shumaker says. “That is a huge thing I learned in nursing school: Nurses do everything. I didn’t know that.”