Massachusetts Association of Occupational Health Nurses

My Story: Kathleen Tumminello

Posted 4 months ago by Nancy Clover

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We had been warned at the start. “Pick your partner, and when your partner sneezes, you pull out the handkerchief. That’s how close you need to work together.” I quickly glanced over at Emily and could tell she had the same worry I did. Could we lift an average size male on a stretcher up and into an ambulance? Emily was barely 5’4” and I was 5’1”. It was 1984 and we were the only two nurses in an EMT class of approximately 20 students. We had to prove our mettle. Nurses don’t fail EMT courses. We were in this class because, over coffee one morning, Emily and I had mused about what would we do if we witnessed a terrible accident with no hospital staff or doctors around? What would we do?  Would we be able to jump in and help with confidence?  We weren’t sure, so we signed up. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the moment of dread had arrived. We had aced all our written exams and successfully completed all the practical exam stations (splinting, CPR, neck braces backboards, etc) Only the last task needed to be completed. With a good number of fire department instructors looking on and pounding hearts,  Emily and I lifted a brave, male volunteer up and into the ambulance in one continuous movement. We did it!  

Life is strange. Whatever you want to call it, Fate, Serendipity, God, or just plain nonsensical luck, after I got my EMT certification, I happened to see a newspaper ad for an Occupational Health Nurse position at a nearby electronics facility. I was looking for nursing work that would give me more reliable and stable hours than a hospital, especially since I was a relatively new nurse and third shift work was a sure bet in the pecking order of staffing. So, naively, armed with my resume, nursing board exam scores, and my EMT certification, I walked into the office of Betty Gaughran, RN, at Microwave Associates in Burlington, MA and introduced myself.  She laughed in her husky smoker’s voice and said, “Well, it looks like you have brains, and one of my nurses just quit today, so you’re hired.” Betty was a good mentor. She often said, “You ought to come to our Occupational Health Nurses’ meetings. Frankly, I didn’t feel like an occupational health nurse.  I knew I had a lot more to learn. My first year there was marked by a scientist who committed suicide by inhaling arsine gas, and by a local  environmental activist gaining day-time access to the facility, documenting possible chemical contamination to the soil, and publishing an article about it in the local paper. Betty handled it all non-plussed. She was the rock at that plant, I was just a tiny pebble. Nevertheless, after my first week I came home one night and told my husband, “I’ve found my niche.” I love the job.

I did have to reluctantly leave after only a year due to a need to provide more care to our adopted child who had significant disabilities. When her needs lessened, I went back to work at a walk-in clinic. There, I learned my emergency nursing skills and was grateful to a couple of the doctors who tolerated my questions and agreed to show and teach me as much as they could. One of those doctors had a degree from Harvard School of Public Health. He was the one who encouraged me to take the board exam for Occupational Health Nurses.
I joined a study group to prepared for the exam. It was organized by Dorothy Reid, a beloved Occ Health Nurse who worked at Dupont. Due to her mentoring and leadership, I started attending the Occupational Health meetings that Betty had urged me to attend all those years before at Microwave Associates. This was my group. I belonged now. I knew my “stuff.” And so once again, armed with new certification (COHN) and a promise I made when I left Microwave, seven years before, I went back to Microwave which was now Tyco and applied for an Occupational Health position and got the job. Again a nurse had resigned, and I showed up at the right time.   Five wonderful years there and 10 more at 3M completed my Occupational  Health journey. I am grateful to everyone who helped me find my nursing niche.
Kathleen Tumminello