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Cathy Erlanson: Because Nursing and Nice are Important

Cathy Erlanson doesn’t think she’s done anything special … she just follows her heart.

But thousands of people will say she is special and that she has helped them. After she graduated from Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing, she worked there briefly as a nurse. The hospital closed, and Cathy helped to move patients into the newly opened East Suburban Hospital, now known as Forbes Hospital in Monroeville. She has been working in various roles as a nurse in critical care at Forbes for 44 years.

“Everything was new,” she remembers. “We would get lost, trying to figure out where to go when we had to go to the pharmacy or anyplace outside of our area.”

Cathy loved what she was doing, her patients and her co-workers. Colleagues came and went over the years and decades, but Cathy continued to stay and serve others. And after 44 years, she is one of the most senior people working at Forbes.

“As I worked, I built relationships with patients and families. I helped them through the hard times. I celebrated their successes.”

Cathy learned early on that the worst situations imaginable can cause suffering and pain – but can sometimes also offer an opportunity for good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

- Romans 8:28

Cathy remembers when, in her early years Forbes, a young woman in her early 20s was brought to the hospital with a severe brain injury. She hadn’t been wearing a helmet and was in a terrible dirt bike accident. There was nothing the doctors and nurses could do. The young patient was brain dead.

Anguished over a life gone too soon, she empathized with the family and provided all the comfort she could. They were crushed, realizing the woman would never get married and have children, never enjoy a productive life and never find her own way in the world.

At a low point, they experienced shock, pain and tears that seemed as if they would never stop.

But the situation changed when the family selflessly decided to donate parts of her body that could give others a second chance at life. The family made the decision, and the medical team sprung into action. Treating the body with the utmost respect, they kept functions going to keep the organs alive.

The decision of the family, work of the medical team and efforts of the organ procurement organization resulted in multiple people receiving the young woman’s donated eyes, tissue and major organs. Helping the family focus on the good that was done, Cathy knew she was where she should be.

And through the years, Cathy’s appreciation for life grew. She had the privilege of witnessing patients courageously fighting challenging odds and then recovering. Sadly, she also cared for those who were unable to recover and never left the hospital.

“There were many times when the patient would hold on to life, waiting for their loved ones to get there and be with them before they would pass,” she says.

“I always had faith, but when those type of things happened, I realize that God is looking out for us in every sense.”

To Cathy, listening to a patient, holding a hand or making a small joke can be as important to recovery as taking blood pressure and providing medications.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

– Proverbs 17:22

Sometimes people come in for a stress test and are frightened at the possibility of what it can mean. She takes time to chat and provide encouraging words to help ease their nerves.

She asks patients and even their family members if they need a drink of water or a blanket to make their wait a bit easier.

When results of a stress test indicate the need for immediate intervention, patients are often whisked away to the lab or to the operating room. Cathy routinely follows up with the patients and their families to see how they’re doing.

“I just want to know they’re okay,” she explains.

As Cathy holds their hand, answers questions, or talks people through the next steps, there’s always a connection that makes a difference. For the patient and for her.

It’s not surprising, then, that Cathy has become friends with many patients. She laughs that she’s found great people, such as a painter and event planner, who have played a part in her life after they’ve left the hospital.

A favorite, she says, is a gregarious “little Greek man who came to the hospital about eight years ago for a stress test.” She cared for him and helped him through the process as he needed a heart surgery. Now, when he returns to Forbes for stress tests, he always asks for Cathy. He shares hugs, invitations to go the local Greek Festival and smiles that show how much she means to him.

It’s not always big, dramatic moments that make the most impact. It’s simply being kind and treating people the way you would want to be treated.

“Because nice matters.”

Many people who have been around Cathy are familiar with her phrase, “Because nice matters.” They also know that she lives it out.

The field of nursing has changed a lot since Cathy graduated from nursing school in 1975.

Back then, medicine was physician-driven, with the norm being to “follow doctor’s orders.” Today, there is real teamwork among the medical staff and nurses have a voice. Nurses have standard protocols about how and what they need to do and when, so they don’t need to wait for doctor’s orders.

No more nurse’s caps and white dresses. Scrubs and comfortable shoes are standard uniform. Electronic charting has taken the place of hand-written charts. Computer screens, emails and technical equipment are part of today’s regular workflow.

Through the years Cathy has worked in a number of roles in Critical Care – from leadership in ICU to the Diagnostic Cardiology testing department. She continued at Forbes when she married her husband Ernie and moved a half hour away. She worked through pregnancy with her daughter, Kiersten, and switched to three days a week to balance time with her family.

But no matter how much things have changed through the years, nursing remains the Caring Profession. And Cathy has loved every minute of it.

Her daughter Kiersten explains, “Her career fits her soul and essence. She is the best person I know, inside and out. She’s optimistic and caring. A nurse to the core.”

After 44 years and outlasting the friends and colleagues she started with, Cathy Erlanson will be retiring as a nurse from Forbes Hospital this week. It’s time for her to turn off the day’s alarm, wake up whenever she wants to, and follow her personal “to-do” list. It’s time to appreciate the lives she has impacted.

To Cathy Erlanson and ALL THE NURSES who, like her, have provided care to those who need it every day, THANK YOU!

“Save one life, you’re a hero. Save 100 or 1,000 lives, you’re a nurse.”


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