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by Andrea Lopez
Features Editor

Whether it be a routine check up or a CT scan, nurses are the ones guiding patients during their trip to the doctor’s office. When it comes to burn injuries, the care is a bit different. Here’s one special lady’s story about her heart for healthcare.

Spending her senior year in high school at the bedside of her cousin who was being treated for leukemia, that’s when Kayla Northrop said she was first intrigued with the medical profession. Whether it was the pediatric, ecology or the intensive care unit, Northrop was exposed to many departments within the Kansas University hospital setting.

“The one thing I was really drawn to while we were here was how many types of jobs there were – how many roles there were coming and laying hands on her,” she said. “Ultimately, with nursing, part of why I liked it so much was throughout her entire course, as well as her death and after she died, it was the nurses who meant most to her and the family.”

Northrop said she listened to her calling and began working at KU hospital in 1989. At that time, she said KU wasn’t a destination hospital – it was more of a place you went if you had nowhere else to go. She wanted to help burn patients, and that was the only hospital that had a burn center.

Seeing, from start to finish, her patient’s hospitalization is the reason Northrop said she decided to work in the burn center.

“I’m a very visual person and I like the healing process and being able to see that,” she said. “I would find it more difficult to be a cardiac nurse because you can’t see those disease processes work – the burned skin and its healing – it’s very visual.”

Taking her position as an unclassified student nurse’s aid, she moved into a hydrotherapy role, eventually evolving to a staff nurse. For the past 11 years, Northrop has been the clinical educator for the Gene and Barbara Burnett Burn Center at KU hospital.

“A lot of huge changes happened at KU for the better,” she said. “I’ve watched it triple in size – patient wise.”

In her role, Northrop said she does a lot of office work where she researches and plans meetings for educational offerings and ensures that nurses are always prepared for the job. When she’s not in the office, Northrop is working outside the hospital serving as a resource to educate people about burns.

“If you have a burn, what are you going to do?” she said. “What is the initial care for you to best take care of them before they get to me?”

Depending on the need, Northrop gives lectures to community members focusing on the initial care and management of a burn patient. Whether it be in the moment at the bedside or doing outreach in the community at different hospitals, Northrop teaches medical personnel how to quickly treat burn patients before they reach the hospital.

“I feel very blessed when I come to work because I have the opportunity to impact individuals and their families in what are generally the worst moments of their lives.”

Northrop said being a nurse is more than just going in a patient’s room and doing the tasks.

“It has nothing to do with just giving medication on time or making sure you chart all your numbers in the boxes,” she said. “It’s underrating what all the numbers in the boxes mean and what the medications are for.”

Northrop reminisced on the day she met Everett – the very first patient she laid hands on.

“So my very first day in the unit, he was over in bed one, and I had to go do a finger stick and I was scared to death,” she said. “Actually helping give back and help them regain their life again – seeing patients transition from being a victim into being a survivor and going out and owning the world and their lives and their families again.”

A picture of Everett and Northrop is now displayed on a wall in her office. He visits the burn center every year during Christmastime to deliver cookies.

“You build connections that are absolutely there for a lifetime,” she said.

Northrop said her goal every day is seeing each of her patients becoming a survivor.

“Not only is it surviving the physical injury – these are catastrophic events and a lot of people die from it – I want it to go even further than that,” she said. “I want them to make those transitions with body image, ability to work out in the community again, interact with their friends and family and just accept the new body image and the fact that they are burn survivors.”

Working in the burn center seems to be very difficult for nurses because the work can be very emotional and physical.

“You’re doing a dressing change for a man who is 200 plus pounds, and it’s 80 degrees in the room so you’re sweating, fighting and wrestling trying to do it – it’s extremely physical,” she said. “Then on the emotional side, it’s very difficult also just because it’s just such a tragic traumatic event.

“I find that I struggle with things differently – depending on what stage of life I’m in. When I was a new mom, it was the younger kids that bothered me the most – like the accidental scalds.”

In children and elderly patients, Northrop said the most common injuries are scald burns. This tends to be from hot water tanks being set too high.

“Starbucks is brewed between 170 and 180 degrees and we recommend that hot water units are set at 120 because at 170, you’re going to get the worst burn you can – within less than a second,” she said. “If it’s down at 120, it takes much more time.”

While nurses can be seen in positive ways, Northrop said she struggles with the way nurses are portrayed through social media and on TV.

“You can go and get the nurses outfit (for Halloween) and you have all the serious cleavage and 6-inch heels and the short skirts – it’s portrayed that way – more of a sex object,” she said. “If it’s not that way, nurses are individuals who are just doing what the doctors have said – it’s not recognized as a true profession.”

While the hospital seems to be hectic at times, Northrop was able to find her soul mate in the workplace.

When Northrop had a patient who was coding – his heart had stopped – her future husband David was part of the code team who helped with the resuscitation.

Northrop befriend David, but since she was seeing a different guy at the time, she set David up on a blind date – one that went very wrong.

“I guess that was good for me because it kept him single for another year,” she said.

As the two recently celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary, Northrop said she’s very fortunate to have a husband who is also in the medical field.

“He’s a really good sounding board because he understands a lot of what goes on and what happens,” she said. “We’re lucky in that we can debrief and faithfully talk about the things that are upsetting or troubling us and he’s got a really good understanding and empathy of it.”

When Northrop and her husband head home after work, she said they try and focus on what’s going on at home.

“If we are doing a lot of shop talk at home, we will recognize it and we will say, ‘Okay no more talking shop and we stop it right there,’” she said.

For those interested in pursuing the medical field, Northrop said it’s the best career because it’s impossible to become bored.

“I feel like every day, if I haven’t learned something new, it’s time for a different career,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s if somebody says something or I come across something, I want to take whatever it is and go, ‘What does that mean? How can that apply?’”


Click here for more photos and stories by Andrea Lopez.

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