A freshly minted UNLV nursing grad in 1979, Donna Mattson dove into her first job at Las Vegas’ Sunrise Hospital, working all units and all shifts with hopes to soon settle into permanent position in the adult intensive care unit.
So, when her supervisor offered her a new assignment in the hospital’s growing neonatal unit, she was more than a little reluctant.
“I’ll try it for three months,” Mattson recalls saying to the director of nurses.
Those three months turned into 22 years at Sunrise Hospital. Mattson worked her way up to nurse manager over level II and III neonatal units, eventually overseeing 55 beds and more than 125 employees.
“We were the only level III neonatal unit within a 300-mile radius, which meant ambulance, helicopter, and even airplane travel for our nurses to stabilize and treat sick babies,” says Mattson.
To improve recruitment and retention of well-educated nurses – a necessity given the physical and professional demands of the unit – she developed a mentorship program for the nurses specializing in the neonatal care.
A Change of Pace
In 1999, Mattson shifted careers to become a school nurse at Clark and Horizon West high schools. Less than three months into what Mattson hoped would be a less stressful position, she heard gunshots. On campus.
Within minutes, she was treating two school-shooting victims — one with a wound in his arm, the other in his lung.
The experience led to Mattson and another school nurse establishing an emergency response team in her school. The program became the model for training staff across the school district to respond to medical emergencies and resulted in the legislature mandating that automated external defibulaters be placed in the state’s high schools.
“As a nurse, you see life come in and you see life leave this world and everything in between,” says Mattson. “You make an impact anywhere in that life cycle that you can.”
Today, in addition to still working with Clark County School District, she teaches a pediatric theory class to third-year nursing students.
Mattson is a three-time UNLV graduate with associate’s (’77), bachelor’s (’79), and master’s (’90) degrees in nursing. Her long list of honors includes the first March of Dimes Nurse of the Year award. Her master’s thesis, “Stressors Affecting Parents of an Infant in the Neonatal ICU,” was given the UNLV Alumni Association Outstanding Thesis Award for 1990.