Thrive by IU Health

June 02, 2021

Nurse: “I can help save people but I can also give them dignity in the final time”

Nurse: “I can help save people but I can also give them dignity in the final time”

She’s spent three decades caring for critically ill patients. Jennifer McAvene knows the importance of consistent care from beginning to end.

By I.U. Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

She was graduating from eighth grade at St. Mark’s Catholic School when Jennifer McAvene created a poster with a colorful rainbow. On that poster she announced her career ambitions: “Nursing.”

The youngest of four, she went on to graduate from Roncalli High School and pursued her nursing goal at IUPUI.

“My father owned a refrigeration repair business and our whole family worked there except me. I think spending time in the hospital waiting rooms when my grandpas were ill made a big impact on me,” said McAvene. She especially remembers one time chatting with a retired physician and afterward thinking that the medical field was where she wanted to be.

Cancer played a big role in that and she always thought she’d end up working in oncology. But when she completed an elective in cardiac critical care she knew that’s where she belonged.

“I’ve seen a lot of transitions over the 30 years and there are always challenges working in medical intensive care. Some people say they don’t think they could do it but I find the sicker the patient, the more I pour out my care. It challenges all my nursing abilities and senses,” said McAvene.

Around the unit she’s lovingly known as “J-Mac” by her peers and is looked up to for her positive outlook.

“I can reflect on numerous situations where J-Mac has made me smile and it’s turned into a belly laugh even during the busiest and most stressful shifts,” said shift coordinator Brandie Kopsas-Kingsley. One of the most stressful situations happened last year when what was traditionally a simple intervention turned into an emergency in less than two minutes, said Kopsas-Kingsley. “I quickly assessed my resources and decided J-Mac was exactly who I needed. I was standing next to the patient’s bed side sweating and trying to think positive thoughts and in walks J-Mac smiling and saying, ‘Oh, this happened to me to me too. It’s not a problem. Here’s what we do.’ I can not express the ease that came over me that was made possible by J-Mac’s positivity, experience, dedication, and compassion,” said Kopsas-Kingsley.

That confidence has come from years of exposure to critical situations – never knowing but always anticipating when things might change in a heartbeat.

McAvene was once caring for a very ill expectant mother when she joined a team that delivered a newborn in the hospital room. After the delivery the same team performed emergency vascular surgery also in the hospital room. The mother made a full recovery and returned home with her healthy newborn.

Another time she remembers caring for a patient for 16 hours. Her coworkers brought her food and drink because she was determined to help him make it through a critical time. He later returned to the hospital and greeted her with a big hug.

Not all outcomes are like that one.

“What I say about death is that it is part of life. I can help save people but I can also give them dignity in the final time,” said McAvene. “There are days that get me down but I manage to make it through it at work.” At home on the back patio of her property, she watches the birds, sips unsweetened iced tea, reflects on her day, unwinds and prepares for her next shift.

McAvene with Robert and their two sons

More about McAvene:

  • She has been married to her high school sweetheart, Robert for 30 years. They have two boys, ages 18 and 22.
  • Her eldest son was drafted as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs last year. He played on the Roncalli High School Championship team in 2016 and continued playing at the University of Louisville. Since his youth, McAvene has been a huge baseball fan.
  • Fun Fact: McAvene took her nursing boards at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and completed the answers by hand. The boards lasted two days. She started at IU Health as a student in 1989 and joined as a nurse a year later, after passing her boards.

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