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Feature Friday: Ashley Purcell

My name is Ashley Purcell, and I’ve been a NICU nurse for six years. I am twenty nine years old and have been married for almost five years. My husband and I currently don’t have any children of our own, but I always joke that I get my 'baby fix' in the NICU multiple days a week.

A year ago today, we moved from Grand Rapids to Traverse City to start a new adventure.  I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a nurse. Honestly, I probably had an unrealistic expectation of what my future would hold. I’ve always been someone that was drawn to babies even as a small child, and when I was in high school I realized that taking care of babies was my calling. I went through nursing school knowing that I may not get lucky enough to work in the NICU right away, but eventually I would work my way there. Fast forward to May 2, 2013 when I received my first call for an interview to work in the NICU at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital as a RN.  I remember feeling ecstatic, but also sick to my stomach. My dream job was right at my fingertips and I remember praying that the interview would go well because quite frankly that’s the only nursing floor that I truly felt like was my calling. Looking back now, it’s funny how as I’ve grown in my faith, I realized that none of that was my plan, but God’s plan all along. Almost six years later, I still love my job just as much as I did the first day and although there are days I’ve doubted myself, I know I am doing the job God has set out for me.

Ashley Purcell and other nurses visiting with twin patients they cared for in the NICU. Twins born at 23.2 weeks.

In my short six years in the NICU I’ve already learned and experienced so much. There have been many times where I’ve left so physically and emotionally drained that I have nothing left to give. Days where I go home and hear nothing but monitor alarms in my sleep. Yes, on most days I get to leave after my shift and leave work at work. But there are many days where I go home and spend the day or days following worrying about my sick baby I left at work. What you also don’t know is the sense of accomplishment and reward you feel when you finally discharge that baby who was born 17 weeks early. That same baby who was given less than a 30% chance of survival is now going home with her parents with a great prognosis. So despite all the sadness and heartbreak that the NICU encompasses, there’s also this reward so incredible that can only be experienced by a NICU nurse.

Some of the most profound times of my nursing career have shaped and molded me into the nurse I am today. One of which is how my husband and I ended up living in Traverse City.

Parents of premature twins, join four nurses who cared for their twins for over 6 months for a photo.

In January 2014 I met the Gartland’s. I took care of their baby Greta for many months at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.  She was born at 26 weeks gestation and transferred to HDVCH from Traverse City, where her family lived. During her stay, I became friends with her parents. After she was discharged home back to Traverse City, we still stayed in close contact. Months turned into years and before we knew it, the Gartland’s became our close friends. My husband and I would occasionally visit in Traverse City to see Greta and her family, where we eventaully fell in love with the city. The Gartland’s always joked that we should move and we would joke back that if they found us jobs, we’d be open to moving! It didn’t really dawn on me until my husband was almost done with anesthesia school and was interviewing for jobs, that Traverse City could be in our future. I was excited that we may have an opportunity for an adventure, but also really scared and sad to leave my dream job and friends that I’ve worked with for so long. I prayed that if Traverse City is where God wanted us, please make it known and that’s exactly what happened. We both were offered jobs in the spring of 2017. He was offered a job with the anesthesia group and I was offered a NICU job. I remember leaving feeling scared of the unknown, but knowing we were doing exactly what God wanted us to do. There are many days where I find myself missing my family and friends in Grand Rapids, but fully trusting I’m doing exactly what I need to be in the exact place I’m needed. I’ve been blessed to meet many families where I’ve created a lifelong friendship and bond with their child because of the many months spent in the NICU. Although there are many rewarding times such as this, there’s also a lot of sadness that goes along with any nursing job, especially in the NICU.

The worst day of my career yet to date was around Christmas 2016. My faith was stretched and I really questioned God and his placement for me. Gage was born at 25 weeks gestation. Babies born this early have significant risks and potentially poor outcomes. This was nothing new. I’ve taken care of other babies just like Gage. I became really close to his family over the 2.5 months I cared for him. Every shift I worked, I usually took care of Gage. He initially started out with a really rough start, but a couple months into his stay in our NICU he was exceeding our expectations and what we would call “stable”. The night started out like any other night, but shortly into my shift I knew something wasn’t right with him. Thankfully the provider agreed. After a series of tests and xrays, Gage had necrotizing enterocolitis. This can turn really bad, really fast. Unfortunately, it did. Before I knew it we were intubating him, transfusing blood, starting him on medications to keep him alive, and calling his parents to the bedside. I knew he wasn’t going to make it through my shift but I was praying for a miracle. That miracle never came. He peacefully left this earth with his family and the nurses who cared for him at his side. I remember feeling completely devastated. There was a lot of second guessing. What did I miss? What did the last nurse miss? Could we have prevented this? The short answer is no we couldn’t have prevented this and not one single person made any mistakes. I will never forget the sounds of his parents wailing behind me  as we tried to bring him back. That sound and that feeling never leave you. I remember asking God if this was really for me. I know God’s plan can be hard to understand, but I know he is always good. Always. It took me a while to fully comprehend this and to actually believe. I returned to work still feeling completely devastated, but at peace knowing he was in heaven with no more suffering.

I know that devastating moments like that wont be the last of my career, but I also know that the joy of sending home a baby with their family is priceless. I love working in the NICU and I feel blessed that I get to go to work and truly say that I love what I do. Most importantly, I am responsible for someone else’s child and it’s an enormous responsibility. The parents of twins born at 23 weeks gestation that I have taken care of in the past said that as parents they have the nursing staff to thank for the care provided to their babies and if it wasn’t for us, their twins wouldn’t be healthy and thriving like they are today.

NICU Nurse [Ashley Purcell] with Anesthesiologist [Husband-Andrew Purcell]

What we do as nurses now can change the entire outcome and life for each tiny baby and I don’t take this lightly. Nursing isn’t for everyone, but if you’re feeling led to become a nurse or if caring for people is something you enjoy then I urge you to not give up on your dream. Life is too short not to be happy and it is worth it every single day to know you make a difference in someone else’s life because of what you do.