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Dad’s journey as an ICU nurse inspires family of caregivers

John Rothstrom, center, has been a nurse at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for more than three decades. Now he works with his daughter, Hanna Norris, right, in the intensive care unit there. They aren’t the only nurses in the family. John’s son, Jordan Rothstrom, left, is a circulating nurse in the surgical department at Providence.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
John Rothstrom, center, has been a nurse at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for more than three decades. Now he works with his daughter, Hanna Norris, right, in the intensive care unit there. They aren’t the only nurses in the family. John’s son, Jordan Rothstrom, left, is a circulating nurse in the surgical department at Providence. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

This Father’s Day, John Rothstrom is a first-time grandpa. He planned to work his 12-hour shift as an intensive care unit nurse on Saturday, so Rothstrom told his family they’d figure something out for a get-together.

That drew a knowing smile from Hanna Norris, 34, his daughter and also an ICU nurse. Flexibility is a norm for the Rothstroms, after her dad’s 35 years as a nurse, first in Walla Walla and then mostly in Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center’s ICU. Rothstrom, 61, and three in the family are nurses – his two children and daughter-in-law.

Son Jordan Rothstrom, 32, works as a circulating nurse in Sacred Heart’s surgery department, and his wife Brianna Rothstrom is a nurse for MultiCare Deaconess’ cardiac step-down progressive care unit.

Both Norris and her brother have a new baby at home. They grew up watching their dad juggle medical work and family. They became intrigued by his stories melding science with the human touch.

“Teaching was discouraged,” joked Jordan Rothstrom, a nurse beginning in 2015. “My mom’s a kindergarten teacher, and if I wasn’t doing nursing, I’d probably be doing something in academics. The scientific aspect of nursing is something that really called to me.

“The stories that dad came home from work with were always fascinating; honestly, the graphic trauma. As weird as that is, the human body and the inner workings of it are fascinating.”

Their dad is just grateful they both joined his profession, one he still respects and enjoys.

“That’s one of the things I tried to impress on them, that this is a good job you can have anywhere,” he said. “Look at a map, spin the globe and go there – anywhere you go will have some aspect of the profession.”

Norris said her brother loved watching TV surgeries as a kid. His role now supports patients and provides surgical tools and equipment.

“Broken bones and joint and hip replacements are my wheelhouse,” he said. “I’m not as involved as the surgeons, but I get to watch regularly.”

When the Rothstroms gather, four of the adults can trade medical lingo. Wife and mom Shelby Rothstrom, a newly retired West Valley teacher, is known to call a timeout.

“She at times puts a moratorium on the nurse-speak, and my husband does, too; he’s a farmer,” Norris said. “Jordan’s wife is a nurse, so if you get the six of us together, my mom and my husband are like, ‘OK, enough.’ ”

But there’s also comfort being able to talk about the job – and the blood and trauma handled – with those who know the work and are close to you, she said.

Norris lives with her husband near St. John, Washington, so she and their infant daughter will often stay with her parents in Spokane as she works shifts. They get it, she said, and her husband also is understanding.

“I was thinking about, even in the ICU, how many are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children who work there,” she said.

“It’s difficult to go home and explain to somebody who has no concept of what it’s like to be able to explain your day to them. When I talk to some of those couples, they say, ‘I’m grateful I have this person to decompress with and vent to.’ I’m grateful for my dad, my brother and sister-in-law and for my husband, who says, ‘That’s crazy.’ ”

The profession isn’t just a job, Jordan Rothstrom said.

“You have to enjoy some aspect of the grind that is nursing to stay in it, because you see people at some of their lowest,” he said. “These two especially do; what they see is much more traumatic than what I see.”

But they all say it’s fulfilling to see patients recover. For Jordan Rothstrom, it might be after surgery to correct a crushed limb.

“There is a plate and 40 screws on that, but now it looks like a humerus bone again,” he said.

John Rothstrom said that although his son works in a different area, he’s able to learn from him to understand more about some ICU patients in recovery. His son observes complicated orthopedic procedures.

“It’s having conversations with Jordan and saying, ‘Tell more about where you work and what you do,’ ” John Rothstrom said. “I can learn something.”

He began when the industry was recruiting more male nurses. Today, there are many nursing options, he said, with advanced paths to become midlevel practitioners.

Moving to Spokane in 1990, he interviewed in the neonatal intensive care unit and the adult ICU.

The NICU seemed daunting, so he jumped at an instant ICU job offer. Rothstrom likes that he can self-schedule. As a young father, he’d come off shift to juggle the kids for a couple of hours before preschool, then power nap.

Later, he scheduled work so he could be at Norris’ high school basketball games and her brother’s football games.

“On the other hand, too, you work every other Christmas – minimum,” Norris said. “People have strokes on your birthday. You kind of learn to do your birthday not on your birthday, or Father’s Day on Monday.

“I remember my mom having us write letters to Santa Claus, and if dad had to work on Christmas, we would ask if Santa Claus could come maybe the day after Christmas or the day before. When my brother was pretty young, we told him one time that Christmas was the 26th, then he found out. He was extremely upset that we tricked him.”

But they’ve learned, she said, “It’s not so much the day as just the celebration.”

Norris, who started at Sacred Heart in 2013, wasn’t sure in nursing school whether she’d love the profession as much as her dad does, but it felt right once she got in the role.

She worked four years in monitoring cardiac patients at Sacred Heart. Moving to the ICU 5 1/2 years ago, Norris got to work the night shift with her dad. He’s been in that late slot for most of his Spokane career.

“It was awesome, especially being a new ICU nurse, to work with him,” she said. “He had 20-plus years of experience there, so just being able to ask him really anything.

“Critical care interested me, just the level of critical thinking you have to do there, figuring out with the help of physicians and the whole team how all the puzzle pieces are fitting together for this patient.”

Nurses get to be proactive, she said, and watch for trends to try to reverse a downward spiral.

Now, day shifts are “better for my body and my life,” she added, but there’s still work with her dad, in a sense. “I often will hand off to him to give shift reports, or vice versa, so I see him frequently.

“It’s been helpful for me, too, even when we weren’t working the same shift, that I could say, ‘Hey, this came up at work, this is what I was seeing, what do you think?’ ”

Working as peers with his daughter fulfilled a dream, John Rothstrom said.

“It was always a hope of mine before I was done with my career,” he said.

Conversations with his dad and sister have helped Jordan Rothstrom gain in critical-thinking skills, he said.

“It’s figuring out what you don’t know, and how to ask the correct question that gives you that answer, and who to ask that question of,” he said. “Nursing is critical thinking.”

John Rothstrom isn’t ready to retire yet. The pandemic took its toll, but he said his care for patients and their families keeps him going. He likes to help people grasp complex medical information.

“To see patients who come in so profoundly ill or broken in the sense of trauma, it’s helping them through to, ‘OK, you are now well enough to graduate from the intensive care unit,’ and that’s really gratifying. Not every story is like that, of course, and those are some of the sad ones, too.”

Now, there’s also the satisfaction that his children share his passion.

“I couldn’t be more proud of both of them in their decision to enter the profession, truly.

“I talk proudly about my children at work, that they’re here and I work elbow to elbow with them. I couldn’t be more gratified.”

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