What do Cardiac nurses do?

Chris O'Brien received her BSN from Auburn University and her Master's in Public Health degree from Emory University. With a background in cardiac care, home health, nursing research & education, and medical writing, she now enjoys the dual paths of being a freelance medical writer and yoga teacher in Decatur, GA.

Heart disease affects millions of Americans and takes many forms. Nurses that take care of patients with heart-related conditions are cardiac nurses. Cardiac nurses can work in a variety of environments, including operating rooms, intensive care units (ICU), telemetry units, labs or private practices.

In fact, I worked with open heart surgery patients in a cardiac unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for several years after having my first child. Working the 3-11 shift meant that we had many new admissions, post surgery ICU transfers and pre-surgery patients. They all had to have cardiac monitoring/telemetry along with diagnostic tests like cardiac catheterizations in which the blood supply to the heart is checked. They also had to undergo various treatments such as angioplasty, the balloon procedure that opens blocked arteries. In addition, patients had to be taught how to care for themselves and keep themselves healthy.

Working on Adrenaline

Occasionally in this high-risk group a patient would "crash" and we would call a "code," summoning a ready team of doctors, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and additional nurses to try and resuscitate the critically ill, potentially dying person. We tried to prevent these situations by getting our unstable patients into the intensive care unit, but there were times when the transfer didn't take place in time. As cardiac nurses at a major teaching hospital we were well-trained to deal with these life-and-death situations, but through the organized chaos and heart-thumping, chest-compressing, drug-injecting excitement, I started to realize that the job with its last-ditch scenarios wasn't right for me. The fast pace and adrenaline rushes were fine and we saved a lot of lives, but I began to dislike seeing people suffer. My interest in prevention definitely grew from being in these emergency situations and seeing how difficult it was for patients and families to cope with the end results of conditions like heart disease. I needed to work further upstream and teach people how to avoid these problems. Even so, several of my former co-workers still work on that cardiac unit--for them this type of nursing was a perfect fit. In essence, there is a niche in nursing for everyone who is willing to seek it.

Tech Savvy Required

Let's switch gears now and talk more about tangible skills. Cardiac nurses are trained to interpret electrocardiograms (ECGs)/telemetry strips and other types of monitors because accurate interpretation and appropriate treatment can mean the difference between life and death. Many patients are saved from cardiac arrest because their nurses pick up on what's happening with their heart rhythm and take steps to correct the problem. Some cardiac nurses also work directly with complex internal devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators, and other high-tech biomedical equipment that requires precise programming and careful monitoring. These nurses are highly skilled and regularly add to their knowledge-base as new devices are introduced. Each year more patients receive implanted cardiac devices from a growing assortment of sophisticated biotechnology. Consequently, this field is likely to expand in exciting ways such as telemedicine, in which tech-savvy cardiac nurses help deliver medical care partly through remote internet connections.

A Career for Kind Hearts

Patients with heart disease are often under tremendous physical and emotional stress and they often lack the coping skills needed to handle this stress. Cardiac nurses quickly learn how to deal with different personalities, helping patients and family members find healthy ways to cope and take better care of themselves. Often, the motivational patient education provided by cardiac nurses helps jump-start the long process of changing negative lifestyle habits and recovering after a life-threatening event like a heart attack.

Useful Resources

Q&A with Cardiovascular Nurse, Kathleen McCauley

Below, interviews Kathleen McCauley, Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She is a professor, clinician and researcher in cardiovascular nursing. Currently, she is involved in research into the care of elders with heart disease.

In the interview, she discusses what cardiovascular nursing is and what makes it an exciting field.

Q: What is your current position?

I'm a professor of cardiovascular nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Nursing, and I also have a clinical appointment at the university hospital as a clinical nurse specialist in cardiovascular nursing. I'm the Associate Dean of Academic Programs in the school of nursing as well.

Q: What is cardiovascular nursing?

It's a specialty that deals with one of the major health issues in this country. When you're a cardiac nurse, you really feel like you're making a difference because there are so many people experiencing heart and vascular system problems. We have wonderful therapies on the medical side and wonderful knowledge generation on the nursing side that can help us figure out how to really make a difference with what, for most people, will be a chronic illness.

Q: How did you get started in this field?

I originally started out in a diploma program, which was a common way to begin nursing when I was finishing high school. I later graduated from Penn with my baccalaureate degree. My first job in practice was as a nurse in a critical care unit heavily focused on cardiology patients. I ended up really falling in love with caring for people with heart disease. I went back to Penn and got a master's degree as a cardiovascular clinical specialist. As I was graduating, a job opened up as clinical specialist in cardiovascular nursing.

Q: What kind of preparation does someone pursuing this career need?

You're going to need to commit to learning a lot. One of the most intriguing things about working with patients with heart disease is that you're blending an understanding of pathophysiology with knowledge of the way medications and therapies work. You're also examining the reasons symptoms develop, and then helping patients to make necessary psychological and lifestyle adjustments in response.

Q: What type of issues do cardiac nurses typically encounter?

A regular issue that comes up is a rapid change in patient conditions. If you're on the acute care side, you really have to be attuned to subtle changes in heart rate, blood pressure, skin color and other symptomatology. You have to put all the pieces together and quickly come to a conclusion.

Q: What personality traits work well in cardiac nursing?

You have to be inquisitive. You have to always be asking questions like: why is it this way; why is the patient having these symptoms; why is the treatment not working as well on this patient as on other patients? You have to be a strong advocate for patients. We want patients to trust us.

Q: What kind of changes have there been in cardiac nursing in the last few years?

What we can do for patients now compared to what we used to be able to do has changed a lot. I don't mean just medical therapies; I mean the knowledge that we have, much of it generated by nurses, about how we can help people live successfully with heart disease.

The collaboration between nurses, physicians, pharmacists, nutritionists, physical therapists and even patients and their families has grown enormously. There's a great sense of partnership and team spirit.

Q: What do you see for the future of cardiac nursing?

In the future, we're going to be less invasive. We're going to be able to resolve people's problems earlier on. The challenge is going to be in helping people live with physiology that's not necessarily adapted to long-term life.

Q: Do you have any other advice for aspiring cardiac nurses?

We need to think outside the border of just our community. Heart disease is killing people all around the world. We need to think about how we can be good global citizens of our profession. How can we help our nursing colleagues around the world?