On the road again: Nurse heads west with her faithful pup

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Emergency department nurse Tiffany Olmstead travels the country, working at other children’s hospitals, but she always comes back to Riley. “ER nurses have a high burnout rate, so I think it helps keep me fresh.”


By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

This Thanksgiving, Tiffany Olmstead will get to do something unusual – sit down for turkey and the trimmings with her extended family.

The emergency department nurse at Riley Hospital for Children often works holidays to give others time with their kids. But this year, she is off because two days after Thanksgiving, she will hop in her Jeep Wrangler with her black lab Elsa for the 16-hour drive to Denver.

She’ll be reporting for work in the ED at Children’s Hospital Colorado. It’s another stop in Olmstead’s traveling nurse adventure, which she started about four years ago, working a few months at a time in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, Calif., before heading home to Indianapolis and Riley.

“I always come back to Riley,” she said. “It’s home.”

Olmstead has been an emergency nurse for 11 years, the past eight at Riley. She likes that no day is the same.

“I hate routine.”

It’s a tough job, but she says her colleagues make it easier.

“There are certain situations that each of us thrive in and certain times we say, ‘Nope, I can’t do that.’ It’s nice that everybody knows each other’s limits.”

As she’s talking, Olmstead is trying hard not to cry. Her thoughts have shifted to a child, as they often do.

“Sorry if I am emotional,” she said. “We had one over the weekend that was just hard.”

Moments like that can sneak up on even the hardiest of nurses, who see heartbreaking cases day after day, night after night.

On those really difficult days, a Code Lavender is called. Chaplains descend on the unit rolling a cart with tea and cookies. They talk to the staff and they listen. They do a blessing of the hands. It’s a way to provide a moment of healing amid the pain of loss.

And it truly helps, Olmstead said. Something else helps her, too. Her name is Elsa.

“Luckily, I have a dog that cuddles with me a lot,” she said, absorbing the grief and stress.

Tiffany Olmstead with her pup, Elsa

Elsa, her rescue pup, is her companion on most all of her journeys, traveling to more states and national parks than a lot of people.

“She comes hiking with me; in LA we went to the dog beach. Pretty much everywhere I go, she comes along.”

The drive to Denver won’t be any different. And Elsa gets the whole back seat to herself, passing the time looking out the window, napping and getting out for the occasional romp at a rest stop or interesting landmark.

Olmstead looks forward to the change of scenery that comes with a different hospital in a different city.

“It keeps me fresh,” she said. “ER nurses have a high burnout rate, so I think it helps keep me fresh, and I get to bring back ideas for our ER.”

Stepping into a new environment comes with its own challenges, of course.

“ER nurses are a different breed,” she said. “When you go into these situations where you know no one, people are very accepting of you because you’re one of them. But there is also that time where you have to prove yourself to them, which I enjoy. Although they’re accepting, they may not be as trusting because they haven’t worked with you. It’s nice to be able to show I know what I’m doing.”

Riley PICU nurse Kelsi Lawless believes her friend Tiffany sets the standard at Riley and in other hospitals that she visits.

“She is truly one of the BEST nurses at Riley,” Lawless said.

Tiffany Olmstead at Camp Riley

If she couldn’t be an emergency nurse, Olmstead, who volunteers in the summer with Camp Riley, would like to be a camp nurse.

“If I could be a camp nurse the rest of my life, I probably would. I love kids and I love camp, so it’s the perfect combo.”

She works with kids who have cerebral palsy and kids with mobility challenges who would otherwise never get to climb and play the way they do at Camp Riley.

“Nowhere else in the country can kids do this stuff, and we’re lucky enough to have it here.”

She’s thought about moving from emergency to intensive care, and then there’s part of her that has always wanted to do flight nursing. But the timing has always been off, she said.

“I have a feeling that no matter what I do, I will be back in the ER. When you do it this long, it’s just part of you.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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