Terri Richards, BSN, RN, at Atrium Health's Levine Children's Hospital, has spent more than 40 years as a nurse. "It's not been a career, it's a calling for me," Richards says.

News, Child Health | 10 days ago

Nursing is Not a Career, it’s a Calling

Atrium Health's Levine Children’s Hospital nurse Terri Richards has been saving babies for 40 years. 

Long before there was the Internet, Terri Richards, BSN, RN, somehow discovered the (former) Mercy School of Nursing. She was living away from home and wanted to move back South and started the nursing program there in 1975. Three days after graduation on June 12, 1978, she began her journey at Charlotte Memorial Hospital -- now Atrium Health's Carolinas Medical Center -- in the neonatal intensive care unit. 

“I just remember on my first day when I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this,’” Terri says. “I met one of my friends also working there for lunch and started crying because I didn’t like sticking babies with IVs. My friend said: 'You get your fanny back up there, and you can do it. You’re not a quitter and never have been.’”

Terri Richards,BSN, RN, has been taking care of babies for 40 years.

Terri did push on, but in the back of her mind, she never thought she would continue nursing after three years. More than 40 years later, she’s still giving that caring touch to the smallest patients at Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital.

“It’s not been a career, it’s a calling for me,” Terri says. “The Lord gave me a passion for these babies.”

Terri recalls how much healthcare has improved over the last 40 years. Back then, babies born at 28 weeks didn’t survive. “We now have babies born at 23 weeks surviving,” she says. “I have a patient who will be 3 years old in May. Even with technology today, he shouldn’t be alive. He had so many problems with his brain, heart and lungs. I went to his first birthday in 2017 and never thought he would walk, but he was running and talking. Parents are so grateful to the nurses. You’re a part of the family while you’re there.”

Like many nurses, Terri went back to school to earn her bachelor's degree while continuing to work. Full-time work and school were hard especially after the birth of her daughter in the early 1980s. With one semester left, she dropped out. She eventually moved to part-time work and school to finish her degree in 1984.

“My husband made me walk at graduation three weeks before my due date with my son,” she says. “He wanted me to experience the whole graduation process.”

Terri Richards, BSN, RN, has been caring for babies for 40 years.

Just two years later in 1986, Charlotte Memorial Hospital received its first ECMO machine, a device which helps replace the function of the heart and lungs. Very few hospitals across the country had this technology at the time. Terri spent time in Georgia and Washington, D.C., learning how the life-saving machine worked. The first ECMO baby arrived in Charlotte on Christmas Eve in 1989.

“He came to visit us when he was 20 years old in 2009,” Terri says. “He was a healthy young man who joined the military. One pulse on his neck no longer works so they may not think he has a pulse. And then two years later, he sent a wedding announcement. Those are the stories you don’t forget.”

Unfortunately, Terri's first adult patient on ECMO was also a tragic one that made national headlines.

“We were hoping it was going to work, but unfortunately, it didn’t,” she says. “I had never dealt with adult trauma, so it was an eye-opening experience for me.”

Terri Richards,BSN, RN, has been taking care of babies for 40 years.

Not long after that, Terri made the decision to go back to working with babies. “My heart was with babies,” she says. “So many people take care of them. I’m just a small portion of that. We make a little bit of difference in the big picture.”

The charge nurse hopes to retire in the fall of 2021. Although her leadership duties sometimes take her away from the patients, she still figures out a way back to them. “I care too much,” she says. “That’s not going to change until someone puts dirt over my face.”