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Health: At ELIH, she’s in a ‘multi-hat position’

Cathy Sepko

Between evolving dress codes and a shift to electronic record keeping, Cathy Sepko, R.N., has adapted to considerable change during her 40-year career in nursing at Eastern Long Island Hospital.

Something that hasn’t altered over the decades is her preferred style of shoe: white SAS oxford tie-ups.

“I realized it was time to retire when I went to get those shoes last year and realized they don’t make them anymore,” the 60-year-old Cutchogue resident joked during a recent interview.

Ms. Sepko, who oversees patients and staff as charge nurse on the medical/surgical floor at ELIH, has the distinction of being the hospital’s longest tenured nurse. The Mattituck native’s relationship with the facility began when she started volunteering as a candy striper at age 15.

“It was very rewarding,” Ms. Sepko said of the experience, which entailed feeding patients and delivering water. “People stayed in the hospital a lot longer back then, so you tended to develop a relationship with your patients a bit more. Today they’re in and out anywhere between two and five days.”

At age 17, while still at Mattituck High School, ELIH hired Ms. Sepko as a nursing assistant. The position exposed her to the stark realities of a career in the field, such as emptying bedpans and watching patients die.

“I basically knew what I was getting into before I applied to nursing school,” she said.

Following high school, Ms. Sepko attended the now-closed Pilgrim Psychiatric Center School of Nursing in Brentwood. She became a licensed practical nurse in her junior year of college and earned a diploma in nursing degree in 1977.

The ensuing years were a whirlwind for Ms. Sepko. She worked in ELIH’s intensive care unit, often finishing shifts at midnight only to return six hours later. As the facility’s youngest nurse, she was often assigned the unenviable task of traveling via ambulance to New York City hospitals with patients who needed specialized care.

“I used to work every weekend, every vacation and all summer,” Ms. Sepko recalled with a laugh. “I was young. You could do that back then.”

At the start of her career, Ms. Sepko said, nurses weren’t permitted to wear pants. They also had to don cumbersome white caps.

“They got in the way of IV pulls and wires,” she said. “I remember putting a catheter in somebody and I leaned over and the cap plopped right off.”

Fortunately, the dress code at ELIH had relaxed by the early 1980s. Gradually, the hospital also switched to electronic record keeping, a move Ms. Sepko credits for reducing communication errors between doctors and nurses.

“Everything is now at your fingertips,” she said. “You push a little button and you find what you want.”

These days, Ms. Sepko spends her shifts reviewing charts and orders and “playing diplomat.”

“It’s a multi-hat position, I guess,” she said.

When she isn’t working, Ms. Sepko enjoys gardening; caring for her dog, Barney, and cat, Spirit; going antiquing; and spending time in the Poconos.

“As someone who has been single, nursing actually has been very good to me,” Ms. Sepko said. “I bought myself a house. I can take care of myself. I’m self-reliant.”

Just don’t discontinue her favorite line of shoes.

Have a health column idea for Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected].

Photo: Cathy Sepko, R.N., of Cutchogue with a patient at Eastern Long Island Hospital. (Credit: Eastern Long Island Hospital, courtesy photo)