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The bridge from restaurant to operating room? Relating to people

Becoming a nurse took time, said Paul McGourty. But the job has given him a sense of purpose that his previous job didn’t.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Becoming a nurse took time, said Paul McGourty. But the job has given him a sense of purpose that his previous job didn’t.

Paul McGourty woke up one brisk morning in 2008 and asked himself, “What if I were hit by a bus? Would my life have made a difference?”

He liked his job as marketing manager at Au Bon Pain in Boston. But he wanted to do more to change lives. Five years later, he is a registered nurse working in the operating rooms of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, earning good pay, and taking great satisfaction from his job.

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The leap from restaurant to operating room might sound like a big one. But for McGourty, who went to the University of Massachusetts School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Travel Administration, it was a launch from a foundation of skills shared by the hospitality and health care industries: the ability to relate to people.

“It’s all about making the customer feel welcome and special,” said McGourty, 39, of Needham.

McGourty’s career change took years, but it followed a tried and true path of assessing strengths and building on them by acquiring new skills. It also required perseverance, stamina, and overcoming rejection.

Paul McGourty began thinking about a career change after his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008.

Kayana Szymczak For the Boston Globe

Paul McGourty began thinking about a career change after his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008.

McGourty began thinking about a career change after his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008.

When he took his mother to the hospital and doctor’s offices, he was struck by the professionalism, caring, and sensitivity of health care providers who put his mom at ease.

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“They carried themselves and moved about with such a sense of purpose,” he recalled.

Encouraged by friends and relatives, McGourty applied to nursing school at MassBay Community College in Wellesley. He was rejected at first.

With health care a growing field, such programs are increasingly competitive.

But McGourty had another problem. While in school at UMass, McGourty never took biology, chemistry, anatomy, or physiology — all prerequisites for MassBay’s nursing program.

So McGourty took an intermediate step, enrolling in a month-long certified nursing assistant course at the American Red Cross in Cambridge.

With the certificate in hand, he parlayed his customer service skills from the hospitality industry into a job as a patient care assistant who transported patients, monitored their status, and assisted them with daily activities at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.

McGourty worked nights and studied by day, taking the nursing prerequisite courses at MassBay Community College. He was earning half the salary he made as a marketing manager, but the experience fed his desire to become a nurse.

“It wasn’t uncommon for a doctor to say, ‘What do you think?’ ” he recalled. “I felt like I was making a difference. I’d leave the hospital at 7:30 or 8:30 in the morning feeling on top of the world.”

McGourty next enrolled in a three-semester certificate program in surgical technology at MassBay, which included some of the same prerequisites and courses as the nursing program.

When he finished his certificate, he became a surgical technician who maintained sterility and operating equipment in the operating room at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner.

McGourty was finally accepted into MassBay’s nursing program in 2011. To his interpersonal and technical skills, he added clinical and critical thinking skills.

With his surgical technology experience complementing his nursing degree, he was hired as an operating room nurse by Beth Israel Deaconess in Milton in August.

He had two other offers but chose Beth Israel Deaconess because he believed it offered the best of both worlds: a small community hospital setting and affiliation with a major Boston medical center.

As an operating room RN, McGourty assesses patients, develops nursing plans of care, and reevaluates patients. He’s always thinking about patient safety and prepared for the unexpected.

“Should something happen, you need to be ready with Plan B,” he said. For example, a patient might come in for a hip replacement but unexpectedly need a blood transfusion.

He works 8- to 10-hour shifts, always on his feet. Sometimes his back aches and his ankles hurt at the end of a shift. But he’s never had a second thought about his career change.

“I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be for the first time in my life,” he said. “In catering, if someone didn’t get a sandwich, it’s not a big deal. In health care, it’s a person’s life at stake.”

Joan Axelrod-Contrada can be reached at joanaxelrodcontrada@gmail.com.

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