When it came time to choose a rewarding career, Tracy Degracia thought she was on the right path in the restaurant industry, having moved into management at Chili’s after working at Country’s Barbecue and enjoying what she was doing.
But then life became far too personal, with the Harris County resident first seeing her young son lying in a hospital bed for months with a difficult-to-diagnose neurological illness. That was followed by Degracia learning suddenly that she had Type 1 juvenile diabetes, a chronic condition that landed her in the intensive care unit at Midtown Medical Center in Columbus.
It was that flurry of events, with the mother of three witnessing the skills and compassion of nurses around her in the hospitals, that brought her to a stark realization. She wanted to make a major, personal difference in the lives of people far beyond ensuring they are satisfied with their meal or dining experience. She wanted to become a nurse herself.
Thus, Degracia set off on a journey that included earning a nursing degree from Columbus Technical College and becoming a medical/surgical nurse at West Georgia Medical Center in nearby LaGrange, Ga. She now is nurse manager over the Outpatient Infusion Center at the John B. Amos Cancer Center, which is owned and operated by Columbus Regional Health. With her son also doing well now, she is in a happy place in her life.
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The Ledger-Enquirer visited recently with Degracia, 38, at the center. She discussed her personal experiences, her career path, and what it’s like to be an infusion nurse who administers life-saving drugs and injections to patients day-in, day-out. The infusion center staff primarily handles non-cancer infusions. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. So you were headed for a lifetime of restaurant jobs?
A. I thought I was going into communications. But as I was in restaurant management, I found that there was that passion. I think it was more of a passion for people than anything. Then when I was in my fourth year at Chili’s, my son was born and he was very sick. So we were in the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit) with special care before he was transported to Scottish Rite in Atlanta. We were there several months, and there were a lot of medical unknowns. It was during that time that I just had a newfound respect for nurses, because it was the nurses that got me through that storm. ... After that, I stayed home and took care of him. With that time spent with him came the confidence of knowing that, hey, I can do this, too.
Q. What was your direction at that point?
A. My family said you’re just so good with this (taking care of her son) that you should be a nurse. Go back to school and be a nurse, they said. I was like, I don’t know. But I was so affected by everything that I knew the reward of being a nurse would be even more of a reward than pleasing a customer in a restaurant.
Q. How old were you at that time?
A. I was 27 or 28 ... The week we got back from Atlanta with my son, I got sick. I was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, and I was in ICU. It was quite an experience, and I don’t remember a lot of it, because it was quick-onset. But it was life-changing for me. Any child or adult who gets diagnosed with that, it’s a chronic disease. You know it’s something you’ll always have and you have to manage and take care of it.
Q. These life experiences changed you profoundly?
A. Yes. I kind of went through a storm, and during that it was an educational (moment) at my endocrinologist’s office, with a rep for my insulin. She was kind of going through the education (of living with diabetes) with me, telling me what to do, what not to do, how to eat food. But she was a nurse and a Type 1 diabetic herself ,and she and I just really connected. It was at that time that I knew I could do that, and that I could make that same difference.
Q. What was your path after that?
A. Once my son was stable and he started pre-K, that’s when I said I’m going to go back to school and doing this, and I did. After I graduated from (Columbus Technical College) I worked in LaGrange at West Georgia Medical Center as a medical/surgical RN on the floor. It was inpatient, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was on the floor for renal (kidney) patients, so there was a lot of dialysis. It was also the chemo floor. We did a lot of infusions on that floor.
Q. With nursing, you’re dealing with lots and lots of people, just as in the restaurant business?
A. They’re very similar, because you are pleasing your patient, your customer. You deal with a lot of different people, and I love that. That’s who I am. So my passion was people. But my (specific) passion was making a difference for people, and I think nursing has fulfilled that.
Q. How did you arrive here at the Outpatient Infusion Center?
A. There was actually a nurse friend of mine who said, hey, I’m over here at the infusion center at The Medical Center. She said, why don’t you come, I’ve got a PRN (pro re nata) position, an as-needed position. She said I think you’ll really like it because it’s what you’ve been talking about, which is wanting that everyday building-a-relationship experience with a patient, and they see you on a regular basis. I had three kids, a full-time job, but I said OK. I was working PRN here, but also full time in LaGrange, doing both. It was a bit much, but I wanted to know for sure, because I loved what I was doing in LaGrange as well.
Q. What cinched the decision for you to be here?
A. It was the patients when they came in and they said, ‘Where’s my nurse?’ It was just a good feeling to know that they wanted ‘you.’ … So the next full-time position that came available at the infusion center, I jumped on it.
Q. You became the nurse manager?
A. No, just a regular infusion nurse. A little over a year later, an opening for the manager came up, and I applied. I was able to take my past management experience in the restaurants and bring it into a hospital setting and into the infusion center and bring that same type of structure you need in any organization.
Q. What do you oversee now?
A. In the Outpatient Infusion Center, the population is the same to an extent, but very different than the cancer center. Our population is pediatrics all the way up through geriatrics. We also have daily antibiotics. We’re also a department that helps patients stay in the community, those who need close-to-home care instead of going all the way to Atlanta or elsewhere.
Q. What types of patients do you treat with infusions?
A. We treat those with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, lupus, asthma. I say we’re infusion nurses because anything that goes through an IV or injection is considered infusion, including blood transfusions. And that is what we do. Non-oncology (non-cancer) infusion is our base.
Q. Your patients come to the cancer center, however?
A. Correct. We moved into this building about a year and a half ago, which has been great because we have been able to utilize all the resources, especially the nurses here, who have so much knowledge.
Q. How many nurses do you oversee?
A. There are three. However, I also manage the employees that we cross-train and come over into our infusion center.
Q. What’s the day-to-day life like for you?
A. There’s myself and the office manager. We take in all of the referrals, and there’s 160-plus physicians that can refer to us, and we’re growing.
Q. How many patients do you see everyday?
A. We average anywhere from 12 to 20 patients a day for us. Sometimes they’re here all day. Infusions can be from two to six hours, sometimes eight. Blood transfusions can take a long time. I typically have two nurses that run that when needed, depending on the acuity. If we have a pediatric patient, we’ll bring in another nurse, and I’m always hands-on in there. I enjoy it, and we have a great relationship with our patients.
Q. What skills do you need to deal with patients? You have to calm them at times?
A. We do. The first-timers who come in, they don’t know us. But we want them to know us as soon as they walk in the door and let them know they’ll be well taken care of. When they first come in, we explain what we’re doing and what to expect. We’re very knowledgeable on side effects and the administration of each and every drug that we do give. So I think having that knowledge and being able to give that (information) to the patient brings comfort. We’re going to make sure you’re taken care of.
Q. You do infusions yourself now?
A. I do. It’s a working nurse manager role, for sure. I don’t think I would have it any other way, because I don’t think I could be behind the scenes.
Q. Can it get emotional at times?
A. Absolutely. I don’t think you would be a good nurse if you didn’t have that emotion. There are times when you know a diagnosis and you know what that future looks like, but you’re there to help them that day, and the next day they come, or the next week that they’re there, because you know that what you do for them is going to help make their quality of life better.
Q. Do you have to stay on top of new drugs and other changes related to those drugs?
A. It’s part of my job. ... Problem every month or two there is something new on the market, and once it’s presented to us, we go through every step to look at the safety of it, the clinical trials and all of that, because you need to know that before you start treatment.
Q. What’s most challenging or difficult aspect of your job?
A. There’s always a challenge, but I think to me it’s kind of fun to figure out the solution. I’m one of those managers where if you ask me something I don’t know, I’m going to make sure that I find out and find out right away, because I don’t like not knowing. I think that’s a good thing. But I think the challenge in infusion is there are so many drugs and they come out on a regular basis and it’s a challenge for me to stay on top of everything. But that’s what I do, and I make sure that we’re competent in everything that we do.
Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?
A. I enjoy the patients. I enjoy the interaction. I enjoy the conversation. I enjoy seeing them when they come in and they’re like, ‘Hey,’ and they know your name. That’s the most rewarding. They know your name, they know they’re going to be OK when they come in, and they look forward to seeing you again … But I also enjoy starting an IV. I enjoy the education of a drug. I think I just enjoy the entire process from beginning to end when the patients come in for their infusions or their injections.
Hometown: Born in Savannah, Ga., but moved to Columbus in 1980
Current residence: Hamilton, Ga.
Education: 1997 graduate of Hardaway High School; earned her associate’s degree in nursing from Columbus Technical College in 2012
Previous jobs: Worked with Country’s Barbecue for 7 years, starting as a server before being promoted to front-of-house manager; worked for Chili’s restaurants as manager for more than four years until the birth of her third son; worked at West Georgia Medical Center in LaGrange, Ga., as an inpatient medical/surgical registered nurse for more than a year before making the final move to Columbus Regional Health
Family: Husband, Henry, and their three sons — Trey, 18, Trent, 16, and Taylor, 12
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with her sons’ activities, which include football and baseball; enjoys home decorating for family and friends; and volunteers at River of Life Church in Hamilton as a caregiver for respite nights for the parents of children with special needs