NEW YORK NURSE: October 2010
by Mark Genovese
For Susan Upright, life truly is better under the sea.
The NYSNA member from Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie became an avid scuba diver two years ago. Since then, she has found a way to combine her enthusiasm for diving with her love of nursing.
“I thought: how can I connect them?” Upright asked. “Life saving, of course! Equipment can fail, divers can make poor choices, or all of a sudden, a diver can be in an environment that’s no longer safe. Why not help people who are scuba diving?”
Upright has participated in rescues off the coasts of Cuba, St. Croix, and in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Recently she was a rescue diver for an athletic event at Lake Mohonk in the Hudson Valley. “I was there, in full gear, watching out for the swimmers in their last swim of a 51-mile triathlon. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, but the athletes were exhausted and I was ready in case someone cramped or slipped below the water.”
Although her mother is a retired nurse, Upright’s entry into nursing came after she worked for an insurance company for 11 years while she raised her two children. “I decided I was getting nowhere fast, trying to keep up with the needs of my children and my home and keep my sanity.”
She recalled the lasting impression she had of the nurses who cared for her at Albany Medical Center after a serious auto accident when she was 23.
Upright was on life support for two weeks and in intensive care for three months. The accident broke every rib on her left side, punctured a lung, lacerated her liver and spleen, and fractured her skull in three places. She was trached, had chest tubes, underwent a craniotomy and was paralyzed on her left side.
“I remembered my mom in her profession,” she said, “and the wonderful feeling I had when my life was handed back to me by those nurses who cared for me.”
So, Upright went back to school for a nursing degree. “I set a real good example for my children,” she laughed. “They saw me staying up late while still working full time to study and conduct my experiments at home. Many times we had store-bought meals sitting on the living room floor among my many books. But I did it!”
Upright has worked in med/surg, neurology and pediatrics. But her favorite field is cardiology. “There’s so much to learn about the heart and to teach the public,” she said. “With the health problems today— obesity, cardiac risks, diabetes — I enjoy being in the forefront, taking care of my patients and teaching them of all the options for both them and their families.”
“I love hands-on nursing,” Upright said. “I love the interaction that is different every single day. I love every nurse I’ve ever worked with. When there’s a problem and you put the heads of a few nurses together it’s amazing the solutions they can come up with.”
Not only does Upright work full time as a cardiac nurse, she works part time as an emergency room nurse, and per-diem supervising at a local nursing home. “If you have a passion and are fortunate enough to love your job then just doing a little more – and doing it at 100 percent – it all comes back to you,” she said.
Upright started diving while her daughter was taking a semester in Australia. “I told her she would regret it if she didn’t get certified as a scuba diver – being so close to the Great Barrier Reef. Then I thought: ‘Wait!’ I grew up watching my hero Jacques Cousteau on television. With no more kids at home, what was I waiting for?”
She found an instructor, took lessons on her own, and did all the class work and pool training. “I went to Florida, jumped in the ocean down in the Keys and got hooked!” she said. “The sights to behold! Just beneath the surface, it’s indescribable magic! My daughter now calls me ‘Ariel’ from The Little Mermaid. When I don’t answer the phone, she thinks I’ve taken off again to go diving.”
Upright now has more than 210 dives under her belt. “I love diving so much that I’ve taken all the courses that I could to advance myself. It’s a fantastic sport, but it’s dangerous as well. You must master each step – such as navigation; using different, mixed gases; and depth, wreck, night, cave, and rescue diving. To become proficient, you must always be prepared.”
Upright is currently studying to be a master rescue diver and will be tested when she travels to La Paz, Bolivia. “This will entail a lot of traipsing through the jungle,” she said. After testing, she’ll be eligible to apply to be a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) diver. Then she can help during a disaster to rescue or recover accident victims. As a FEMA diver, she’ll be on a national list. “Hopefully my services will never be needed.”
Her next step? “I want to be skilled as a hyperbaric chamber nurse,” Upright said. “Or maybe I could find a cardiac hospital on an island in the middle of the ocean!”