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Three San Diego Nurses on the Challenges and Rewards of the Job

Candid conversations with local RNs in different stages of their careers

By Jennifer McEntee

Nurses - Ahmed Kemal

Ahmed Kemal

Stacy Keck

For those considering a career in nursing, the prognosis is mixed.

First, the good news: There are plenty of job openings in what is already a revered vocation. The bad news? The work is physically and emotionally demanding, made all the more difficult by an unrelenting pandemic. Staffing shortages strained the nursing profession even before the onset of COVID-19. Baby boomers are getting older, requiring more patient care. Long-tenured nurses are aging as well; some are knocking on retirement’s door. Burnout among nurses is a persistent concern and enrollment in nursing schools isn’t expected to keep pace with demand.

According to the American Nurses Association, more registered nurse (RN) jobs are available in the United States than in any other line of work. Federal labor statistics project a need for 1.1 million new RNs over the next decade to keep pace with nursing attrition.

We spoke with three San Diego nurses at different stages of their careers. All three agree it’s both a difficult and rewarding time to be in health care. We wanted to learn what brought them to nursing and how they persist despite the challenges.

Ahmed Kemal, registered nurse

Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla


Ahmed Kemal says he felt like a “baby nurse” when he joined Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in January 2022. After he graduated from Stony Brook School of Nursing in New York, coronavirus safety protocols limited how much time he and his classmates could spend in clinical settings.

And then there he was, working 12-hour shifts in a hospital-issued gown, gloves, and mask, interacting with patients during our region’s omicron-variant surge. “We were still getting a lot of COVID patients. We’ve all read about it, but to experience it was something different,” Kemal says.

He felt fortunate to have seasoned health care professionals to guide him as part of Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla’s 40-week New Graduate RN Residency

Training Program, an orientation that eases newly graduated nurses from the classroom to the clinic with one-on-one coaching and mentorship.

“Most of the coaches, they’ve been through it,” Kemal says. “This program helped bridge that gap.”

This is his second career. Originally from Ethiopia, he came to the US in 2010 to study biology. While working

as a lab researcher in New York, he joined the US Army Reserve as a medic. He says that position sparked his interest in the medical field, specifically caring for patients: “That initiated my journey. I always knew I liked interacting with people. Being there for them gave me joy.”

Once he completes Scripps’s residency training program, he’ll be placed in a full-time nursing position. He’s interested in transitioning into the intensive care unit. “There, you’re able to focus on more acute patients who need more care,” he says. “Being able to focus and give all my attention to a patient is very appealing to me.”

Nurses - Megan Medina

Nurses – Megan Medina

Stacy Keck

Megan Medina, director of regulatory and accreditation programs

Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego


Megan Medina has been a pediatric nurse for two decades, with a focus on infection control since 2013. Think chickenpox, tuberculosis, and influenza.

The Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 pushed Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego to prepare for large-scale outbreaks of it and other communicable diseases. Health care professionals became versed in how to use personal protective equipment, isolate very sick patients, and handle upsurges in admissions. “I think it really put us in a good position when COVID came along,” she explains. “We already had plans in place.” When the first COVID-19 patients arrived in San Diego from Wuhan, China, in early 2020, Medina and her team were there, enforcing safety protocols to protect patients and health care workers alike.

She concedes that it can be scary for children to see their nurses in powered air-purifying respirator hoods. “One of the things that’s kind of cool about kids is they also find this stuff fun,” she says. “When you come in wearing a spacesuit, in pediatrics you can kind of play off that a little bit.”

If anything, the pandemic has deepened her appreciation for pint-size patients. “One of the things that always attracted me to pediatrics is how resilient kids are,” she says. “That’s just been reinforced in a completely different way coming through this pandemic. They’ve been able to adapt. Masks have just become a norm for them.”

Medina’s interest in health care began when she was a kid herself, watching her grandmother be treated for lung cancer. “I think it made an impression on me seeing how much the nurses interacted with patients and their families. They provided that support we needed throughout my grandmother’s illness. It was really eye-opening for me.”

Nursing requires a healthy reserve of compassion and patience. “You have to find ways to connect with your patients and make them do things that sometimes they don’t want to do,” she says. Indeed, the pandemic has been especially trying. “A lot of nurses are burned out right now, and I hope they can find their passion again. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. I hope that our profession makes it out of this.”

Ultimately, Medina says the good days outnumber the bad.

“When you can impact a child in the way we do as nurses, that just makes up for anything hard that you go through. There’s just so much good here.”

Nurses - Jane Andrew

Nurses – Jane Andrew

Stacy Keck

Jane Andrew, nurse manager

Palomar Medical Center Poway


Once her children were school-aged, Jane Andrew decided to reenter the workforce. She had a social science degree and retail experience, and she wanted a career with some flexibility where she could meaningfully connect with people.

“Nursing was where my heart went,” she recalls. A Poway resident for most of her life, Andrew went through Palomar Health’s internship program and was hired as a new nursing school grad in 2010. She worked 12-hour night shifts, three days a week, on Palomar Medical Center Poway’s medical-surgical floor. It was just the kind of live-work balance she wanted. “I was able to go to any of my kids’ games.

I still picked them up from school,” she says. “I just felt I was able to be there for my family, and my kids never came home to an empty house.”

A dozen years later, she’s working in the same hospital unit, but as a manager overseeing 110 nurses. Now that her kids are grown, she’s on the day shift, five days a week.

“I really love the people I work with,” she says. “Many are the nurses that trained me as a new grad and respected me and brought me along. I was raised in this community, and I very much see myself staying here. I have a commitment to my community and team in this unit.”

Andrew has seen firsthand the strain the pandemic has put on the health care system. She recalls how nurses and patients alike were apprehensive about being at the hospital when so much was still unknown about

COVID-19. Nurses cared for patients while worrying about what they might bring home to their own families. Patients delayed preventive care, and when they were eventually admitted to the hospital they were often diagnosed with multiple ailments. “It has been difficult at times,” she says.

She notes that nursing can offer flexible schedules as well as varied career paths. Inpatient, outpatient, home health care, travel nursing, and even school health offices are all options for those pursuing a career in nursing.

“You’re able to work and feel like you’re out there being productive and helping people,” she says. “It’s hard work, but what you get out of it is you can really go to the core of yourself. You’re trying your best to help people and make a difference in their lives to get them well.”

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