By Hannah Pietsch
As American men joined the fight for freedom during World War II, they left behind thousands of jobs. To help fill the gap, the U.S. government created the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign with the slogan “We Can Do It” to encourage women to fill these traditionally male-dominated roles. The campaign was a success: between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
A lot has changed since then – in 2019, women comprised 47 percent of the U.S. workforce. And rather than saying “We Can Do It,” today’s women just do it – excelling and rising to the top in traditionally male-dominated fields more than ever before. As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a look inside the Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, the busiest Level I trauma center in the nation.
Memorial Hermann Life Flight® is perhaps the most recognizable team within the Red Duke Trauma Institute. And Kristi Graham, RN, spent seven years acquiring the experience, certifications and licensures required to join that team.
“After graduating nursing school, I worked in an IMCU, multiple ICUs, and lastly a CVICU,” Graham said. “I started interacting with flight crews in my third year of nursing and they immediately caught my attention. I decided very quickly that I wanted to be a flight nurse, and from that moment on, everything I did was focused on getting the certifications and experience to apply.”
Once Graham met all of the criteria for a flight nurse position, she took the chance and applied. She spent an entire day interviewing with various Life Flight leaders and crew members, but it wasn’t until one of her last interviews that a woman entered the room.
“Breaking into a male-dominated career can be intimidating,” Graham said. “But the Red Duke Trauma Institute has women in leading roles all over the organization. Right now, our medical flight crew is comprised of 58 professionals, seven of whom are women. I believe these numbers will only continue to grow. I would love to see a female pilot join the team.”
Graham is coming up on her one-year anniversary at Memorial Hermann. She described her time at the Red Duke Trauma Institute as a challenging yet rewarding experience.
“You never know when or what type of call is coming, so we have to be prepared for anything,” Graham said. “My brain immediately starts running through checklists – what equipment do we need, what do we know about this patient, and what can we do to make a difference. And it’s just that continuous cycle of assessing and evaluating what treatments and interventions are needed until the patient is transferred to their next level of care. We then re-supply and get ready to help the next person who needs us.”
With every flight, Graham draws inspiration from her mom, who was a nurse in multiple specialties for more than 17 years before her passing in 2010 after an 11-year battle with cancer.
“My mom was pregnant with me while she was in nursing school, so I like to joke that I’ve been through nursing school twice,” Graham said. “I may be a little biased, but she really was the most caring and compassionate person in the entire world. She cared so much about her patients that it wasn’t unusual for her to come home late because someone needed her there.”
“I would be honored if I could be half the nurse my mom was,” Graham added. “I know she would be so proud to see me in my flight suit. If I’m able to be impactful in anyone’s life, then this is a career, team and legacy that I would love to be remembered for.”
When Graham and her Life Flight team are en route with a patient to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, the on-call trauma surgeon will get a page. One of those surgeons is Dr. Michelle McNutt, the Trauma Medical Director at the Red Duke Trauma Institute. In addition to taking trauma calls, McNutt is also responsible for overseeing the quality of care for traumatically injured patients and working with trauma centers across the system to standardize care and improve outcomes.
“Trauma care is a team sport,” McNutt said. “Our patients do well, not because of one person or one service they receive, but because of the multidisciplinary approach we use that allows us to have some of the best mortality rates as the busiest trauma center in the nation.”
McNutt was inspired to be a physician by her Brownie Troop leader and close family friend, Dr. Nancy Dickey. Dr. Dickey became the first female president of the American Medical Association in 1998.
“In a way, I grew happily naïve regarding gender bias,” McNutt said. “Especially with role models like Dr. Dickey, my gender was never a factor when I thought about career choices. Despite trauma being a male-dominated field, I’ve never felt out of place or unwanted here. Out of the twelve trauma surgeons at the TMC, four are women, and all of us hold leadership positions.”
As a surgical intern, McNutt said she loved every rotation she did. It wasn’t until she began working with Dr. James H. “Red” Duke on her trauma rotation as a second-year surgical resident that she knew trauma was the specialty for her.
“I fell in love with the variability of each day,” McNutt said. “As a trauma surgeon, you perform a wide variety of surgeries and help a diverse group of patients. And it was also the way Dr. Duke interacted with everyone he came into contact with that I loved. He was a very special person in my life. He even officiated at my wedding.”
Every day, Dr. Duke’s legacy lives on through McNutt and the women of the Red Duke Trauma Institute. A few years ago, by coincidence, all of the physicians – ER faculty, ER residents and general surgery residents – on a single ER shift were women.
As McNutt receives information about the inbound patient, she can make the call to evaluate the patient in the emergency room or decide if they need to go straight to the operating room. An operating room and staff are available 24/7 for trauma cases under the leadership of Sharlet McGowen, OR Director. A nurse for 41 years, McGowen likened a trauma OR to a symphony.
“At a symphony, everyone in the orchestra is playing their specific instrument that makes a particular sound,” McGowen said. “And when it comes together, it’s a beautiful melody. And that’s what we do in the OR – everyone puts their knowledge and experience into action and everything comes together perfectly to provide the best possible care for that patient.”
McGowen wanted to be a nurse from the tender age of six. She was taken to visit her great-grandmother in the hospital, and she remembered thinking that the nurses who cared for her great-grandmother made her all better and got her home to McGowen. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college. She recalled that her family – including her great-grandmother – was so proud of her when she started her first job and began earning “big-time money” – $8 an hour.
“Nursing is such a wonderful occupation because you have so many specialty areas to choose from,” McGowen said. “I had a five-year plan. Five years in maternal child health, five years in the OR, five years in the ED, and so on. But when I got to the OR, I loved it and never wanted to leave.”
McGowen added that being an OR nurse is unique from all other specialties.
“Various circumstances bring the patients to the operating room,” she said. “The nurse as the patient’s advocate is flexible, multitasking, accountable, passionate and a critical thinker. The perioperative nurse will adjust to the patient’s needs. There is only one goal, and that is one patient at a time for optimum patient care delivery and outcomes. I want every patient to be treated with the same intentional safe handling I would give my loved one and that I want for myself. That is the care I saw my great-grandmother receive.”
After deciding to stay in the OR, McGowen soon became a charge nurse and then managed various service line ORs. She was then encouraged to pursue her master’s degree. After obtaining her master’s, she was a manager running the daily OR schedule when the OR director position became available. While women have always been a majority in nursing, McGowen said that she has seen a change in executive leadership roles being filled by qualified female nurses and physicians.
“There used to be roles that women just didn’t hold,” McGowen said. “And when I was coming up in my career, you definitely didn’t see women of color holding executive leadership positions. Today, I see women in certain roles and think, ‘Yes! It’s about time.’ Now, our society isn’t where we need to be in terms of equity for all women, but we are much better than where we were. I don’t take the fact that I hold this position lightly.”
McGowen said that motherhood taught her valuable skills and lessons that she applies daily to her role as a leader.
“You have to learn how to really listen to your child to find out what they need,” McGowen said. “One type of crying means they are hungry, another means they need to be held. Then they begin to learn how to speak through listening and mimicking. Being a mother taught me the importance of listening – people will tell you exactly what they need and what they are seeking.”
At the end of the day, all three women agree that teamwork is what makes the Red Duke Trauma Institute the nation’s leader in trauma care, and that there are plentiful opportunities in male-dominated spaces for female leaders.
“Any woman can do any job they want if they have to drive to go for it,” Graham said.
“The sky’s the limit,” Dr. McNutt said. “Just never stop trying.”