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By Fred Dickey

Aug. 5, 2013

Let’s create a scenario.

You’re on a runway-delayed Delta Air Lines flight to San Diego when the pilot happens by and, doing a little PR, introduces himself. “I’m Captain Lee.” He’s a lithe man with graying sideburns on the long end of middle age. He smiles warmly and moves on, leaving a good feeling behind.

A few days later, a fall sprains your ankle and takes you to the emergency room of Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. An older man in scrubs approaches. He has a friendly smile that inspires trust. He says, “I’m Steven. I’m your nurse.”

You do a double-take and wonder if your fall was on your head and not your ankle. You say, “Do you have a twin? I was on a flight the other day, and you look just like the pilot.”

He laughs. “No twin, just me in two places. I’m Steven Lee.”

That didn’t happen, but it could have.

In 2006, at age 53, Lee was facing a mandatory airline retirement age of 60 and started thinking of a second career. Not that he had to. Anyone who flies for a major airline for 28 years, plus adding in a Navy Reserves pension, will retire to sleep on a very soft mattress.

A friend happened to mention he was beginning nurse’s training as a second career for himself, and that started Lee thinking.

“I thought, I can do that. I can still do this job (flying) and go to nursing school. One day I was on my way to Home Depot, and I suddenly turned left instead of right and ended up at Miramar College, signing up for biology and chemistry.

“I came home and told my wife I was going back to college. She dropped her jaw, and said, ‘What?’ But then, she said, ‘If that’s what you want to do.’”

Even when the government upped the retirement age to 65 in December 2007, he persisted in his nursing plan.

Given his lack of need, a question he often has been asked, both in school and in the E.R., is one we can ask again: Since you don’t have to do this, then why?

“I tell them I’m an experience junkie. I really, really am. I’m obviously not doing it for the money. It fulfills an emotional part of me. I just didn’t want to leave the workforce. I’ve always had a lot of curiosity.”

Though he already had a degree in aeronautical engineering from UCLA, it took four years of study to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of San Diego and acquire his RN pin. He was then hired at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

Even for an “experience junkie,” the emergency room has sated his appetite, as much as had flying F-14 Tomcats off carriers as a Top Gun pilot.

Lee contrasts the emotional environment between the ER and commercial piloting, and even flying fighters. He says that in flying, everything must run on an even keel. Losing tempers, becoming frantic or even impatient is destructive to teamwork and can be fatal.

In the emergency room, patients are sometimes stripped of the veneer of everyday civility. They’re worried, scared or angry. A nurse must not only manage pain and infection, but often emotions.

I ask: “I’ve heard more than one nurse say she would never marry a doctor.”

“Well, I’m already married. In our emergency room, it’s quite collegial. I really find that refreshing, and we’re one of the busiest in the country.”

Any case you’ve seen in the ER that brought you to tears?

“Yeah, when a little one expires. It’s difficult when you’re (working on a patient), and it ends with an expiration. You’re expected to stop what you’re doing and get back to your other patients. That’s tough. But in California we typically have a case load of four patients, and they all need care.”

I notice you say “expired” instead of dead. That sounds a little like a carton of milk.

“The word dead has emotional connotations that sometimes expired doesn’t, even though it means the same thing. We try to be culturally sensitive, too. But no matter what you call it, it is.”

Being a male nurse, are there assumptions that you’re gay?

“Maybe, once in a while. I’ve had patients that have said something. Yeah, there probably is a certain assumption. Yeah. It probably goes unmentioned.”

Being still fresh to the profession, Lee is bothered by what he calls “horizontal violence” as being common in the nursing profession. He defines that as a nurse being nasty to another, and making the job of the other nurse harder to do.

He thinks the practice has roots in the past. “My guess is that in the old days nurses were dressed down by doctors all the time, and nurses maybe have always been considered somewhat secondary in health care.

“In nursing, there’s this old-school idea that if you’re young, if you’re new, you don’t know anything. I’m not going to give you any praise, I’m going to criticize you. I’m going to report you. I’m going to write you up. Whatever. It’s counterproductive.”

It’s called the “emergency room” for a reason. Sometimes, “never a dull moment” becomes a tragic one.

Lee says one of the scariest things a nurse must deal with is the sudden, unforeseen plunge in a patient’s well-being.

He creates a hypothetical of a patient who comes in with perhaps pneumonia, and who seems alert and talkative for a long period, while all the time, bad things — sometimes undetectable things — are happening. For example, weakened kidneys that normally manage to do the job can start to collapse under the demands of a sick body.

“You can’t always see that coming. They’ve been talking, they’ve been sitting there, and all the time they’re getting worse and worse and we don’t always have the diagnostic tools to be able to see that happening.

“Nurses have to stay alert to changes in their patients. The deal is, you can’t always see it. It just isn’t there. Sometimes we get signs, but sometimes things remain OK, and then all of a sudden, ka-boom! It can change very, very quickly.”

If you had to give up one of your two careers, which would it be?

“I don’t know. They’re both really interesting. I’ve been flying for a long time. I’m comfortable with that. It would be a hard choice.”

He’s worked both jobs full time for three years because he has the seniority muscle to virtually schedule himself at Delta, and the hospital has the flexibility to work with him on hours.

Beginning this summer, though, he’s cutting back to part time on his nursing, feeling that he now has the experience to make that work. It will please Karen, his wife of 30 years, and their three daughters to have him more at home in Scripps Ranch.


How do you reconcile a Top Gun F-14 pilot flying off a flattop with the nurse at your bedside? You don’t.

And you thought humans were easy to figure?

But if you wake up in the Sharp Grossmont Hospital emergency room and a 60-ish male nurse with a kind smile, attentive eyes and a soft touch is taking care of you, be thankful this Delta captain was not scheduled to fly that day.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for 2013, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He believes every life is an adventure, and invites your comments and ideas via email at

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