HANK Spring 2012

Flying the Talk

Two women (seated) speaking on a stage

Colorado's Becky Sassaman (at right), RN, a member of UFCW Local 7, partnered with fellow Coloradon Debbie Zuege, RN, senior director of Nursing and Women's Health, to aid a sick passenger on a flight.

The power of partnership in the air

The patient at the center of the Value Compass isn’t always a KP member, as two Colorado RNs proved on a flight home from the Mid-Atlantic States region last fall—and the experience they shared in the air also brought a fresh appreciation of their shared values and commitment to partnership.

Debbie Zuege, Colorado’s senior director of Nursing and Women’s Health, and Becky Sassaman, a nurse at the Arapahoe After-Hours clinic in Denver, work together as co-leads for the Nursing Partnership Council but had never teamed up clinically. That changed on their return flight from the Mid-Atlantic States, where they had talked about partnership with a group of union stewards.

Shortly after takeoff, Zuege was settling in and starting to read a magazine when something caught her eye.

“A flight attendant came down the aisle, holding an oxygen tank,” Zuege said. She alerted Sassaman, and they joined the flight attendant, who was tending to a woman lying down in the aisle. The woman was pale, sweating excessively and seemed confused. She’d been sick to her stomach. Two physicians on the flight joined in to help move her to the back of the plane.

The hastily formed team concluded the woman was dehydrated. Her pulse was weak. They elevated her feet and gave her liquids to drink; Sassaman placed an IV into her hand to administer fluids they found in the onboard medical kit, and Zuege administered oxygen. The woman responded well, with her pulse and color returning to normal. The doctors and nurses decided she’d be fine for the duration of the flight, and the attendant rearranged passengers so Sassaman could sit with her. The team kept the IV in place, suspending the fluids from a hanger hooked to the overhead bin, and gave her medicine for her nausea. Zuege and the two physicians checked in throughout the flight.

“The lady was so incredibly sweet and grateful,” says Sassaman, who helped her get clean, found her jacket and even lent her a pair of workout pants. “She kept saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘How can you do this?...I made a scene.’ I told her we are nurses, and it is what we do.”


It reconfirmed we have a passion for nursing, and that is the foundation on which we can partner.

Becky Sassaman (left, with Debbie Zuege, RN)
RN, UFCW Local 7

By the time the plane landed, the woman was well enough to walk out on her own. The three women exchanged contact information—and Sassaman checked on her as soon as she got home herself.

“She is the sweetest lady,” Sassaman says. “She sent me a new pair of pants with a card that thanked us for saving her life and thanked us for saving her dignity."

Sassaman and Zuege said it was instinctive to react quickly and with genuine care. “Nursing isn’t a job you perform between certain walls, during certain hours,” Sassaman says. “Nurses are innovative and can work with nothing. Sometimes, it’s when we do our best.”

Zuege says when she’s officially on the job, she feels rewarded in much the same way she felt from the events on the plane: “We can experience this feeling every day when we take care of our patients and ourselves.”

For Sassaman, the in-flight call to service underscored the strong partnership she and Zuege share.

“It reconfirmed we have a passion for nursing, and that is the foundation on which we can partner,” Sassaman says. “When caring for this woman on the flight, Debbie and I were together, on the same page, like we had done this together many times before.”

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