NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — *Beep Beep Beep* goes the alarm at exactly 5 a.m., Capt. Min Choi, a clinical nurse assigned to the 99th Inpatient Operation Squadron Critical Care Unit, gets out of bed and starts her usual routine to prepare for the long 12-hour day ahead.
She gets dressed, makes her to-do list for the day, grabs some coffee and begins her short drive to work. She savors the short drive from base housing to the Mike O’Callaghan Medical Center, as it gives her the chance to go over her plan for the day.
Before heading in, she sits in the parking lot, takes a deep breath and says to “don’t make any mistakes, treat your patients like your family and keep a positive attitude no matter what the day might bring.”
It’s a way to psyche herself up for what is a stressful and potentially unpredictable day in the critical care unit. After her moment of reflection, she gets out of the car, heads into the hospital, puts on her scrubs and gets the report for the day so she can begin her rounds cheerfully greeting her patients.
As a nurse in the critical care unit, Choi has a very physically and emotionally demanding job, but it’s one that is a true labor of passion and love.
Critical care nursing is a complex and challenging nurse specialty to which many registered nurses aspire. Also known as intensive care unit nurses, critical care nurses use their advanced skills to care for patients who are at high risk for life-threatening health problems.
Critical care nurses must be proficient in a wide variety of high-level nursing skills. They need to be experts in evaluating intensive care patients, administering care, recognizing complications and coordinating with other members of the critical care team. Along with these skills, successful critical care nurses also excel at interpersonal communication, leadership, strategic planning, critical thinking and decision making.
With intensive care patients needing treatment around the clock, critical care nurses are usually required to work rotating shifts that include days, nights, weekends and holidays. It truly takes a special person to put in the hard work and constant sacrifice that it takes to become a critical care nurse. To better understand how Choi embodies the special traits needed to excel as a critical care nurse, it is important to first know her unique journey.
Choi grew up in Daegu, South Korea, located in southeastern Korea about 50 miles from the seacoast. Growing up, she was heavily influenced by her mother and her sisters, contributing her desire for success to the constant support of her family and the sacrifices her mother made for the family.
“In the Asian and Korean cultures we are very family centered,” said Choi. “You get a lot of inspirations and motivation from your family. A lot of my motivation to be successful came from my mother, Ja Yeon, and my older sister, Lucy. My older sister is very intelligent and she really tried to give me her thoughts on how I should be and what I could do.
“My mother is 78 years old so when we just talk about the older generation of mothers in the Asian culture the girls are influenced so much by the mother because we are so close together,” said Choi. “You kind of learn things from the life experience from the mom. They always sacrifice themselves and really don’t have their life. They sacrifice their ambitions in order to raise the children and to support the husband. They do everything for the family.
“I didn’t want to live that way,” said Choi. “I wanted to build a life of my own and chase after my own dreams. I knew that I needed a good profession to be able to accomplish this so I started asking myself, ‘What can I do to support myself?’”
Choi wasn’t sure on what she wanted to choose as a career but knew that she needed to further her education to reach her goals.
“I started attending college in Korea,” said Choi. “I first went to school for interior design but my sister encouraged me to come to the U.S. and experience what the U.S. had to offer. She encouraged me to see what the world had to offer outside of Korea. I started coming to the U.S. for short trips and it was different from anything that I had seen on Korea. I loved it and started to learn English.
The desire and vision that she had to have a career that would allow her to support herself came to fruition when her sister convinced her to look at attending nursing school. In 1999, Choi took a leap of faith and permanently moved to the U.S. so that she could pursue her dreams of having a career.
“I didn’t really think about being a nurse until my sisters talked to me about how good of a job it was in the U.S. I thought, ‘Maybe that would be my perfect job,’” said Choi.
She was accepted and enrolled in the nursing program at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California but faced some unique challenges that most other nursing students don’t.
“When I was in nursing school I wasn’t really good with English,” said Choi. “The language barrier was the biggest challenge for me. I could read and write English but I couldn’t speak it or comprehend the listening part very well. I had to put a lot of effort into my studies to pass. Everything was a new word for me. Luckily, I had a lot of support from my professors and classmates and I was able to get through it pretty well.”
It didn’t take long for Choi to realize that nursing was a passion of hers. “It was during my clinical rotations when I realized that this was really something that I wanted to do,” said Choi. “I did my clinical rotation at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California. I rotated with a trauma ICU and I got to shadow all the nurses. I really loved talking to the patients and I was really impressed and shocked with how professional the nurses were and the amount of knowledge they had. It really made me want to be a nurse.”
After nursing school, Choi and her family moved to Los Angeles where she worked two full-time jobs as a nurse and as a teacher at a nursing school to help support her family.
“I was physically and mentally exhausted,” said Choi. “I was working six days a week and I rarely got to see my kids and husband. I only had one day off and sometimes I didn’t even have a day off.
“One day at work, a family of a patient of mine, who was retired Navy, told me that I should look into joining the military,” said Choi. “They talked to me about how good of an opportunity it would be for me.
“I began researching what the military had to offer and saw the benefits that it could provide for me and my family,” said Choi. “My husband served in the South Korean air force and he was all for me joining. He was very supportive and even quit his job to take care of the home and children so that I could pursue my career.
“After I joined the military everything started to work out,” said Choi. “I only have to work three to four days a week now. The first year when I joined the military I remember my kids coming up to me and saying, ‘Mom, how come you don’t go to work anymore?’ They were so used to seeing me work all day all the time.
“Now I only work about half the days I used to work. I have more time to spend with my kids so that really works out perfectly for me. I really enjoy the extra time I get to spend with my husband and kids and we are able to talk more and get along more.”
As a mother of two, it was a welcomed change of pace for Choi.
“Before joining the military, I was working so much that I didn’t even get to ask my kids how they were feeling, what was going on at in their lives and how things were going at school,” said Choi. “I barely got to see my husband. Family means everything to me so that was really hard. The military is much more family oriented and has allowed me to spend more time with my family which means a lot.”
Since coming to Nellis AFB, Choi has been the embodiment of the Air Force core values and has been a great leader and mentor to the people she works with.
“She is very driven and very smart,” said Maj. Leila Pasignajen, 99th IPTS Critical Care Unit flight commander. “She is passionate with her care and everything is always on time. Patients never miss their medications. As a charge nurse, she makes sure all her nurses meet all their patients’ needs. She is on top of everything. Her decision making skills, judgement, leadership and knowledge are what make her such an asset to the team.
“When there is a ‘Code Blue’ she is always there grabbing the bag and going where she is needed and training new nurses how to handle the situation,” Pasignajen said. “She doesn’t hesitate to speak up when she sees things that could be improved. She is a little person with a very strong voice.”
Recently, Choi became the director of the peripherally inserted central catheter program. Nellis AFB is the only base that has a registered nurse-led PICC program. Also, Nellis AFB is the only base to have the joint Veterans Affairs Hospital and Air Force PICC team.
A PICC line is a long, thin, flexible tube used to give medicines, fluids, nutrients, or blood products over a long period of time, usually several weeks or more. A specially-trained nurse or doctor will use an ultrasound machine to find the veins in one’s upper arm and insert the PICC line. A catheter is threaded through this vein until it reaches a large vein near the heart.
Patients benefit from the use of a PICC because it has less risk for infection and has a high patient satisfaction rate. Also, it is very cost effective and saves the hospital resources that can be utilized in other ways.
Choi has been instrumental in further strengthening the ties between Nellis AFB and the VA by heading up this program and training nurses so they can in turn also work at the VA.
Another thing that makes Choi such a great nurse is her caring personality and genuine love of people.
“I enjoy interacting with the patients,” said Choi. “My philosophy as a nurse is to treat my patients like my family should be treated or how I would want to be treated. When you think that way your patient feels that. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a patient that you took care of — who was sick — come up to you weeks later looking like a totally different person. Seeing them completely healthy makes it all worthwhile.
“Working in the critical care unit, you don’t see a positive outcome 100 percent of the time so having former patients come up to you and thank you is very rewarding,” Choi said. “You do everything you can to try and rescue all of your patients, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. It hurts my heart when that happens but that’s a part of the job.”
Choi is grateful for the opportunity that was awarded to her in coming to the U.S. and pursuing her dreams. Always looking for a way to volunteer and give back to those who are less fortunate, she devotes her spare time as a remote area medical clinic volunteer. The RAM program treats more than 900 patients over a three- to four-day span.
“First of all, it’s a community service,” said Choi. “I serve the hospital and I’m paid for that, but I feel that you need to serve the community and help those who can’t afford medical treatment. I didn’t start volunteering until I joined the military. I saw a lot of organizations that work with the homeless and people who don’t have insurance and provide free medical care to these individuals. I feel honored and it’s very rewarding to be a part of these organizations and help these people.”
Choi says that her method to success revolves around using her time wisely, setting goals and taking the steps necessary to achieve those goals.
“If you do nothing, time still goes,” said Choi. “If you do something, time still goes. Why are you wasting your time? Use that time to do things that will help you achieve the goal that you have set for yourself.”
Choi has taken the road less traveled to get to where she is at today and even though the journey has been a long and strenuous one, it is a journey that is far from its last chapter. She will be embarking on the next chapter in her life by pursuing her doctorate degree this summer as she was accepted into the Doctor of Nursing Practice program.