For CHOC at Mission Hospital nurse Cathy Conlon, the Mission Viejo campus has felt like home for 38 years.
When she first set foot in Mission Hospital in 1983, she was a 22-year-old student studying to be a nurse at Saddleback College, just 15 minutes away from her home. She never could have imagined that day that she would spend her entire career there.
But since the day she joined the pediatrics unit in 1986 that would later become CHOC at Mission Hospital, she’s returned at least twice a week, punching the clock, grabbing her well-worn translucent green clipboard and nursing kids back to health.
Just four days before her 62nd birthday and after more than 4,080 shifts – Cathy recently punched the clock for one of the final times before retiring from a career marked by advocacy, hospitality toward others, building community and – of course – caring for kids.
In her professional nursing career, she has never worked anywhere else.
“I’m in this for helping my community and my family,” Cathy said, reflecting on her career. “I wanted a job where I could be home, raise my children and foster my community outside the hospital as well as inside the hospital.”
When she joined Mission Hospital in 1984, she worked on a medical/surgical unit caring for adults. She stayed in that job for about two years before applying for registered nurse position on the pediatrics unit. She never looked back.
In 1991, CHOC began operating the hospital’s pediatrics unit. In 1993, CHOC at Mission Hospital opened on the fifth floor of Mission Hospital.
Cathy has since become a fixture in pediatrics, helping build the sense of community so unique to CHOC Mission.
“She’s really grown with the hospital,” says Dr. Gary Goodman, a critical care specialist and medical director of CHOC Mission’s pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). They’ve worked together since 1984, lived in the same town of San Clemente, and their kids even went to the same high school, where Cathy’s husband taught English.
“It’s a very special thing to be a CHOC nurse and to be part of our culture – part of the culture that we’ve created here together,” he says. “Cathy is as good a representation of what we’ve accomplished here as anyone could be.”
Her colleagues – many of whom consider Cathy to be more family or friend than coworker – say that although she’s retiring, she has left an indelible mark.
Not afraid to speak up for what she knows would be best for kids, her influence and advocacy can be seen around every corner.
There’s the emergency kits left in bags at each bedside for which Cathy advocated.
Or the hospitality room for parents to obtain coffee, water and ice for themselves and their children to relieve nurses from doing the task, allowing them more time at the bedside with patients.
“We want associates who speak up when they feel something isn’t right. Whether it’s for themselves or their staff or families or a group of people and that’s a remarkable thing about Cathy,” says Bronwyn Stackleather, director of patient care services at CHOC Mission. “We need more people who stand up for what they believe is right, even when it’s scary to be that voice.”
Cathy is a selfless nurse. Even when asked about herself, she insists upon casting the spotlight on others.
“Rachel is a great nurse. She’s really the future here.”
“Our clinical associates are amazing.”
When interacting with patients, she moves with care, explaining what she’s doing to kids in a way that doesn’t make it seem scary while simultaneously educating parents. But what sets Cathy apart the most, her colleagues say, is how she cares – not only for patients, but also for her coworkers.
Like when her manager, Karen Mish, underwent surgery. Cathy was right at her bedside during her recovery, doublechecking her drips. Or when another one of her colleagues got in a jam and needed a ride to work. Cathy was there to pick her up.
Anybody who has worked with Cathy has a story about how she’s been there for them as a colleague and a friend.
“Cathy is always the first to help,” Karen says. “Hospitality. That’s Cathy in one word. She wants to make people feel comfortable.”
Even though she wouldn’t consider herself a teacher, Karen said, she’s mentored countless nurses along the way.
“But with Cathy, it’s not even about the role – it’s about who you are as a person,” says Kaylee Link, a second-year pediatric RN who began her career as a clinical associate at CHOC Mission and learned from Cathy.
“Seeing people as humans, knowing there’s more to them than a diagnosis or a position on their badge; realizing you’re talking to somebody who has an outside life, a background, feelings, thoughts, opinions – a holistic person versus just a patient – I’ve learned that from Cathy,” Kaylee says.
“She’s inspired me to take the time to talk to people and get to know them better, even if it’s fleeting. Even if I’m going to work with you for a shift and never see you again, but that could still make a difference.”
For Cathy, retirement seems bittersweet.
She’s looking forward to spending more time with her two grandkids, hiking with friends and trying her hand at ceramics, golfing and gardening. She’s also excited to travel more. She been to a few places – Amsterdam, France, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand among them – but said she’s looking forward to visiting more – “and with no restraints on when I have to come back!”
At the same time, she knows she’s leaving an irreplaceable community. Up until the pandemic, many of the nurses who worked at CHOC at Mission Hospital had spent 20 years or longer there together. They organized game nights and social outings; leaned upon one another for support; raised their kids in the same towns and became a family.
“We’ve grown up here together,” Cathy says. “Everything that has happened in my nursing career has been a gift. Just such a gift.”