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Published on January 28, 2015

Workspace: Heart surgery changes career choice for St. Vincent’s Riverside nurse

By Marilyn Young, Editor

Amy Manhan had been a nurse for a couple of years, but the words still scared her to death: You need to have surgery to remove a cyst from your heart.

The growth had been found several months earlier when she was being treated for kidney stones. Because her heart function was normal, there was no push to remove the cyst.

Then Manhan started having shortness of breath. She couldn’t even climb four stairs. At first she blamed it on gaining 50 pounds.

“I thought it was just because I’d gotten fat,” said Manhan, a nurse at St. Vincent’s Riverside.

But it wasn’t.

The news of surgery terrified her.

“I was having nightmares of impending doom. I was going to die,” Manhan said.

She called her mother and together they cried as Manhan repeatedly asked, “Why is this happening to me?”

It was probably the first time in her 36 years her mother didn’t have the answer.

On June 10, 2010, Manhan was second in line for surgery. That meant she still had time to change her mind and leave, which she considered.

“I was so scared. I almost didn’t do it,” she said.

Her husband, her parents and her sister were there that morning before she went in for surgery and after she came out.

There also was a nurse from the open heart recovery unit telling Manhan she would take care of her.

As Manhan woke up after surgery, the nurse told her, “Everything is fine. You did great.”

Those words changed her life.

A new path in her career

While Manhan was laying in the recovery unit that morning, she fought to stay awake. She watched everything that was going on.

The nurses were so caring and so good at their jobs, Manhan said, she was in awe. She told herself she had to work in the recovery unit.

“I have to help people the way they helped me,” Manhan said.

Three weeks later, she was back to work at her job in the telemetry unit, but she hadn’t forgotten what she said the morning of the surgery.

She talked to Karen Kesslar, clinical coordinator in the surgery recovery room, about working there. Kesslar told Manhan to first work on the step-down unit, where patients are treated before being sent home.

She did that for about a year before a spot came open in the recovery unit. The only bad part was all nurses in the unit start on night shift. She hated the 7 p.m.-7 a.m. shift, which she had worked earlier in her career.

The pace in the recovery unit is a little slower at night, though, and provides a stronger learning environment for newcomers.

Two years later, she was back on days and loving her job as a nurse. It’s the career she knew as a kid she wanted to pursue, though it took a little while to get there.

A winding path to becoming a nurse

After graduating from high school, Manhan joined the Air Force, where she was guaranteed a job as a surgical nurse, she said. Military service was strong in her family. Her father and uncle were in the Coast Guard and her father’s parents were in the Air Force.

Five days shy of graduating from boot camp, the shin splints she had developed in both legs turned into hairline fractures. She stayed for a couple more months, where she was assigned to tedious jobs that could be done while sitting down.

Her military career ended after 112 days.

She went home and attended Brevard Community College in Cocoa for a couple of years, taking basic courses on her path to becoming a nurse.

She married young, dropped out of school at 22 and began working as a sales representative for a dental lab. Six years later, she was divorced and had lost her job.

A friend from Jacksonville invited her to visit. “So I did and I never left,” Manhan said.

She got a job as a waitress and bartender at bb’s in San Marco, where a lot of the servers were nursing-school students. She told herself, “Maybe I could do it.”

She met her husband, Levi, whom she married in 2005. Within three months, his 7- and 9-year-old children came to live with them. She loved being a mother, which taught her life wasn’t all about her.

“I found myself calling my parents up and apologizing all the time,” she said.

Manhan graduated from what was then Florida Community College at Jacksonville in 2008, during the recession when nurses were having trouble finding jobs.

But luck had been on her side with St. Vincent’s. When drawing assignments out of a hat for clinicals during nursing school, she drew St. Vincent’s all four times.

Also on her side were the black bottom cupcakes she had made for her co-workers on 5 North, where she was ultimately hired just before taking her boards.

The past year has shown Manhan is where she should be.

Happy at home, work

Manhan won several awards in 2014, including the Caregiver of the Year award from the Florida Hospital Association and St. Vincent’s Guardian Angel honor. She loves her job and can’t imagine working in any other unit, she said.

Away from work, even though her stepson is in college and her stepdaughter is back with her mother, the Manhan home is filled with another boy and girl: Frankie, a Boston terrier, and Princess, an American bulldog.

To say she loves the dogs is an understatement. While she and her husband were looking for a home, a major requirement was a pool — for the dogs.

And when the renovations were taking longer than expected and delayed their move, she and her husband would take the dogs to the house on weekends for a swim.

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