A cellphone photo of an oncology nurse cross-country skiing to work during a recent Utah snowstorm was widely shared on the internet, underscoring the mixture of dedication and joy with which healthcare workers see their duty to patients and colleagues.
“I am certainly not used to things going viral. When the local media called and asked to interview me, I said, ‘I’m happy to be interviewed, but this is not really about me,” says Susan Childress, RN, MN, OCN, director of nursing services at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.
It was about patients in need of care, and overnight staff at the facility working long hours to provide it.
“That day, the schools were closed and all the kids stayed home, but hospitals — certainly a cancer center — do not get a snow day,” she says. “There were a lot of dedicated people that stayed late until someone came to relieve them. People went to amazing efforts to get in that day. When you take care of patients, you do not have the luxury of [staying home].”
As a note for employee health professionals and the ongoing issue of presenteeism: Childress would not have gone into work — on skis or otherwise — if she was sick.
“It’s a cancer hospital, but we have the same challenge that other hospitals have,” she says. “Our leave system is paid time off, so you don’t have sick leave or vacation — just a lump sum. A lot of people don’t want to take that sick leave because it eats into their vacation time. We certainly remind employees that if they are sick, they need to stay home.”
On the morning of Feb. 6, 2019, almost a foot of snow fell on Salt Lake City. An experienced cross-country skier, Childress knew she could make it the two miles to work and that it would make for a fun story for her colleagues. She had often thought of doing it — and here was the chance. Hospital Employee Health asked her to describe the adventure in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
HEH: The snow continued falling heavily that day when you left for work?
Childress: Yes, I got up early that morning because I was out shoveling my car off and getting ready to go at 4:30 a.m. I went in to get ready, and when I came out, it was all covered again. We had so much snow that morning.
There are a lot of young nurses who had their kids staying home from school, so the night nurses had to get home to their families. I thought about it, and I had always kidded myself that it might be fun to ski to work. I cross-country ski a lot, so it’s not any big deal. One of the other nurses I work with snowshoed down from her house to the road and was able to get a ride to work.
HEH: Someone took your picture as you skied along the unplowed road?
Childress: I thought the nurses would get a kick out of it, so I asked someone who was digging out their car to take a picture. When I got to work, I put my skis right inside my office door because they were all snowy. I ran downstairs at about 7:30 a.m., which was a little after the usual shift change. I spent the next half hour just verifying that everybody was making it in and that we had a full plan for coverage because we had a pretty full house that day for patients.
HEH: You say the viral coverage began when a colleague took a picture of your skis?
Childress: Someone took a picture of my skis in my office door and tweeted it out. She kind of sheepishly said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I just thought it was great that you skied today. I was showing the picture [of me skiing] to the nurses, and one said, “Can I tweet that out?” She tweeted it out, with something like “#nurses don’t have a snow day.” About a half an hour later, she runs in and says, “Sue, it’s going viral!”
HEH: The communications press officer, who was working from home, began getting media requests?
Childress: Yes, and once it went on local TV, it went out to affiliates. I started hearing from friends back East from nursing school and colleagues from way back. There is so much hard news and controversies, and healthcare is not an easy place to work. I was fine with being the fun story for the day. It was pretty funny because someone called in saying they were were having a hard time getting in. The charge nurse said, “Well, Sue’s here, she skied in.”
HEH: Is this the kind of staff commitment you have across the board?
Childress: Yes, and I am certainly sympathetic to people who had a hard time getting in, but that is just the culture that we have here. We’ve got patients to take care of, and we have to get in. It was a really bad snow day, but patients came, too.
I got a call early that morning asking if we should cancel surgeries. I said, “No, we are not canceling surgeries if the surgeons are here.” Most of them are skiers with four-wheel drives. If the patient makes it here through all this, we need to do their surgery. It makes you proud of your staff. When I was checking in with night crew, I asked them if they were worried or needed any breakfast. They were saying they were fine and hopefully it won’t be too long [for their replacements to come in].