McDonnell earns excellence award, nurse of the year |

McDonnell earns excellence award, nurse of the year

From rock miner to nurse

McDonnell never considered going to college – until he was 35. He came from a family of iron workers, graduated high school and became a hard rock miner.

In the 1970s, he had a glimpse of his future – only he didn’t realize it. He was a lifeguard at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire and saved a swimmer’s life using CPR. But it took another couple of decades and a job as a heli-ski guide for him to realize his true calling as a nurse.

The turning point came during a clinical training for his emergency medical training as a heli-ski guide. During his clinical in the emergency room at Denver General hospital, a severely burned body came in. The medical staff went through the motions of resuscitation, but it was too late. While the tragedy might have turned some people away from a medical career, it inspired McDonnell.

“You’re either made to do this or not,” McDonnell said. “Some old nurse told me, “Nothing we did for him hurt. All we did was try to help him. That’s all you can do.'”

After that experience, McDonnell entered nursing school.

“I had no confidence,” he said. “I was in freshman English trying to figure out what the verb and noun was.”

But test by test, class by class, he built his confidence, ultimately earning straight A’s. He received his bachelor of science degree in nursing from Mesa State College in Grand Junction seven years ago and has worked at St. Anthony Central Hospital since. He works three, 12-hour shifts a week in the emergency room.

“There’s no atypical day,” he said. “You need to be ready for anything. It’s exactly like the TV show. You never know what’s coming through the door. It’s really life-or-death. There’s just never a dull moment. A lot of times we go 12-hour shifts without eating. It’s a level-one trauma center. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. We can crack your head, crack your chest, do neurosurgery – anything we have to do to save your life.”

McDonnell takes care of the most critical patients, managing their IVs and transporting them to tests and surgery. As a male nurse, he also takes care of more of the violent patients and criminals.

“We get murderers, but you just treat them like people, with respect,” he said.

Earning the awards

His caring, upbeat attitude is one of the qualities that led his coworkers to nominate him for the nurse of the year award.

“He is by far the best nurse that I’ve worked with, and why he’s so excellent is because every client that comes into the ER he makes feel very special by identifying with them, asking them if they’re a Rockies fan or an Avalanche fan and makes them feel at ease, and he’s like, “I know I don’t look like a nurse, ma’am, but I am,'” said co-worker Annie Shanahan. “When the chips are down, he’s there to support you no matter what it is. He’s an expert in his field.”

A 20-member committee made up of nurses and administrators selects the winner of the nurse of the year award and the Sandy Sigman Excellence in Caring award. McDonnell won both this year.

The nurse of the year award is based on outstanding nursing-care qualities, including integrity, spirituality, imagination, compassion, leadership and teamwork.

The Sigman award originated in 1994, after Summit County resident and flight nurse Sigman died in a Flight for Life helicopter crash. The award commemorates her enthusiasm, holistic approach to nursing and mentorship.

McDonnell earned excellence in caring awards in 1999, 2000 and 2002 in his department, but this is the first time he has won a hospitalwide award.

How he survives – and thrives

Some nurses burn out in the demanding field, but McDonnell thrives in it.

For him, watching sick children is one of the hardest parts of the job, but he balances the pain with his attitude about death, which he sees as a natural part of life. He strives to show his patients compassion, to grow and educate himself as a nurse and to leave his work at work.

“You walk out the door and leave it, because anything you do outside of work isn’t going to change anything,” he said. “You try not to let it stress you out. That’s why I fish.”

Along with fishing and skiing, McDonnell enjoys spending his free time with his wife and his 7-year-old son. The four days off a week are just another reason he loves nursing.

“There’s an incredible need for nurses, and I just don’t get why people aren’t going into it,” he said. “We do great stuff. I work with some unbelievable, highly intelligent people. It’s just so interesting.”

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at

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