How Being an ICU Nurse Prepared Me to be NLM Director

In mid-May, at their 2022 National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition in Houston, Texas, I received a great honor from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN): the AACN Pioneering Spirit Award. I was delighted to receive this prestigious award, which recognizes significant contributions that influence progressive and critical care nursing worldwide and relate to AACN’s values of integrity, inclusion, transformation, leadership, and relationships. I was humbled to receive this award for my work during my tenure as NLM Director, and it’s in large part due to the work that so many NLM employees do every day.

This acknowledgement from AACN is deeply meaningful to me because critical care nursing has been a part of my professional identity for almost 50 years! In 1974, while I was still in nursing school, I was assigned to work as a nursing assistant in the critical care medical unit at Lankenau Medical Center outside Philadelphia. After graduating in 1975, I became part of the nursing team in the surgical intensive care unit (ICU) at the very same hospital.

These early experiences have touched every part of my career, including my role at NLM—the epicenter for biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the largest biomedical library in the world.

Then: Learning from My Teachers and Colleagues

I learned from Kathy McCauley, cardiac-care nurse extraordinaire, about the importance of the scientific basis of nursing. Nurses’ deep knowledge of physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy enables the bedside critical care nurse to almost instantaneously recognize vital changes in a patient’s medical status and determine just the right interventions to rebalance fluid or improve oxygenation. My colleague and ICU nurse, Nora Kelly, modeled respect for patient dignity that, to this day, shapes my work to support patient self-management using effective computer technologies. Nora showed me that even in the midst of an often hectic, fast-paced ICU environment, there was always time to provide a patient with comfort, help a person into a more comfortable position, or complete basic hygiene and grooming around tubes and monitor wires.

Now: Serving as Your NLM Director

What stands out the most to me now are the lessons about the importance of in-the-moment information processing; interdisciplinary teamwork supported by nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, social workers, and others; and personal accountability that shape my everyday life as the director of NLM. Delivering high-quality care under extreme levels of uncertainty and risk is the hallmark of critical care. I learned early on that time was of the essence—there was rarely an opportunity to pause and read an article or two as one pondered how to intervene in a physiology cascade that could lead to sudden death.

The insights from these experiences taught me that for information to truly support in-the-moment care, NLM needed to make its resources open and available in machine-readable formats. It is our job to use machine-learning algorithms to make available NLM’s vast repository of biomedical and scientific literature that drives contemporary drug management or clinical guidelines interpretation. NLM invests in research that helps ICU professionals quickly interpret patient charts so they can predict the likelihood of pulmonary embolism diagnosis or track a patient’s probable health outcome trajectory using observations noted in their electronic health record.

NLM in the ICU

ICU patients in hospitals around the country are all supported by the best interprofessional teams that understand the unique aspects of patient care, whether that’s to advance the patient’s progress towards wellness or to provide alternative end-of-life care focused entirely on comfort. Because of the diversity of caregivers and professionals across hospital ICUs, we must acquire, organize, and disseminate the literature to all biomedical professional groups when they need it most.

It is in this spirit that each division in NLM—including our Library Operations team managing our NLM Collection, our MEDLINE Literature Selection Technical Review Committee to impanel experts across many specializations, and our PubMed and PubMed Central with the tools to index and catalog records—accelerates the dissemination of knowledge from many disciplines. Clinicians are required to have deep expertise and stay abreast of new research within their specialty and to recognize potentially valuable literature from other disciplines. In support of this requirement, we organize over 34 million citations by clinical problem and physiological underpinning. That way, no matter what your specialty, each search identifies literature from a wide range of perspectives and refines our “relevance-based results return” according to those patterns most valued by our patrons, as described by NLM’s Best Match algorithm.

Patients often find themselves in the ICU from somewhere else in the health care system and are frequently discharged not to their homes, but to other less-intensive clinical care units. To understand their conditions and efficiently guide their care in a vast, complex, and time-sensitive setting, health care interprofessional teams should understand all ICU clinical information and events so they can translate and transmit that information to the responsible post-discharge teams. This information flow relies on health data standards so that events that occur in one place are well understood in the next. NLM plays an important role by forecasting how health care settings like ICUs will use health data standards to promote interoperability and by shaping the public policies that protect patient records. NLM shares its expertise in data science, health information technologies, and computer science with our fellow federal agencies and with the private sector to make sure patient records are accessible while remaining private and secure.

Connecting the Dots

I remember the enormous intimacy involved in my ICU nursing experience, often including myself and a patient, at times the patient’s family, and certainly every time the rest of the care team. But teamwork only works when each member holds sacred their responsibility to the patient and the care that they require. Personal accountability does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it is molded and shaped through conversations with colleagues, collaborative care-planning rounds, candid postmortem reviews, and quiet heart-to-hearts in the staff lounge. Even these efforts are touched by NLM, from providing literature and guidelines that lay out the various roles of professionals to furnishing our citations repository with the contact information of those authors whose work guides clinical thinking. In this way, NLM becomes a partner for personal accountability.

If only that fledgling ICU nurse from 50 years ago knew that her entire cultural and practical experience was preparing her to direct the most important health science library in the world! Because of who she was as that nurse and who we are as NLM, critical care remains a cornerstone of health care information and systems in best support of all patients. If you have ideas for how NLM can better support the critical care of YOUR patients, please let us know!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

8 thoughts on “How Being an ICU Nurse Prepared Me to be NLM Director”

  1. A lovely statement about how discipline-specific experiences early in a career build the knowledge base and insights needed for later inter-professional responsibilities.

    1. Angela, my mentor and friend—I hope you see some of your inspiring nursing career shining through and being brought to the world in ever-expanding ways! It is always nice to hear from you. –Patti

  2. Dear Dr. Brennan,
    Congratulations on your much deserved award. I have enjoyed reading your NLM Musings: your sense of humor and deep caring show brightly through. Thank you for your continued service to humanity, from one who practiced nursing for 50 years, including ICU and Coronary Care specialties.
    With respect and admiration,
    Elizabeth Austin
    Ashland, OR

    1. Elizabeth—you are very kind, and I would like to thank you for your 50 years of service! I appreciate the support from a fellow nurse and glad you find my blog enjoyable.

  3. Not only was Lankenau the birthplace of a notable nursing career, it’s my actual birthplace! Interesting that two Lankenau ‘alums’ wound up working at NLM at the same time. Wonder what’s in the water in Delaware County!

    1. Elisabeth—I’m always glad to hear from another Lankenau “alum,” and I appreciate your support! –Patti

  4. Dear Patti!
    How you inspire me.
    You reminded me of when I worked in an UTI. It was there that I saw the importance of research results. I saw that the scientific article had information for diagnostic and therapeutic decisions. From there, I became interested in scientific journals. Many years later I went to work with them. Seeking to ensure that the information was of good quality. This movement led me to develop a model for evaluating editorial policies and strategies.
    Thank you for every time you sow ideas and make me imagine.
    A hug

    1. Juliana—it is great to hear from you, and I appreciate the compliment. I agree that research and science are critical to ensure quality information is available to everyone. Thank you for following my blog! –Patti

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