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CU College of Nursing faculty Mary Beth Flynn Makic, PhD, CNS

Beyond the ‘Crisis Mode’: What Mass Shootings Taught One CU Nursing Professor

Mary Beth Flynn Makic aspires to improve healthcare systems through Clinical Nurse Specialist program

Written by Bob Mook on December 23, 2022

Headlines about mass shootings – such as the recent massacre at the Club Q nightclub in Colorado Springs – trigger difficult memories for Mary Beth Flynn Makic, PhD ‘07, CNS.

Dr. Makic was on call at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) during the Columbine High School attack in 1999, when 15 people were killed. She also worked as a floater in the intensive care unit (ICU) at UCH in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting of 2012, when 12 people perished in gunfire.

“All hands were on deck during Columbine, and I got called into the Emergency Department to wait for the trauma patients to arrive,” she recalls, sadly. “But they didn’t come in because they all had died.”

During the Aurora theater shooting, Makic was asked to put on her scrubs at 3 a.m. the day of the shooting to care for victims in the ICU. Makic says “debriefing sessions” with her nursing peers were essential in dealing with trauma throughout those stressful episodes – particularly for those serving on the front lines of the Emergency Department.

“Debriefing sessions are structured by people who are trained on handling emotional trauma,” she says. “Some people want to talk, and some people want to remain quiet. It allows you to listen to other people process, and to let it go. That’s important because nurses burn out when they don’t process – the science in this area is pretty solid.”

A clinical nurse specialty expert

As a Professor and the Specialty Director of Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (AG-CNS) program at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, Makic holds a deep reverence for the evidence-based science that could improve outcomes for patients or reduce burnout for healthcare professionals.

As Makic explains it, CNS advanced-practice nurses focus on nursing-practice excellence to improve outcomes within patient populations by optimizing healthcare systems. The role of a CNS is quite versatile. They can provide direct patient care or serve as consultants for nursing staffs. Often, CNSs work in management positions, but they may also develop or work with a team to develop effective policies and procedures. They can address any number of systemic challenges – including pandemic protocols and caring for victims of mass shootings.

“We provide nursing education and competency, but we do much more than that,” she says. “We fix the systems to allow nurses to deliver quality care and understand the impact on their patient populations. If you love evidence-based practice, and making sure that nurses have what they need to practice well, this is the right specialty for you.”

Makic, who moved to Colorado in 1994 to work as a CNS at UCH’s ICU unit, assumed the specialty director role for CU Nursing’s Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (AG-CNS) program in 2016. Prior to joining CU Nursing full-time, she worked for the college since 2004 on an adjunct basis by teaching graduate and undergraduate-level courses.

The position is the latest in Makic’s long, distinguished – and still evolving – nursing career that essentially began in La Crosse, Wisc.

Roots in Wisconsin

“I’m from a pretty heavy science family,” Makic says. “My grandfather emigrated from Ireland when he was just 12 and became a surgeon from La Crosse. He married a nurse who was also from Ireland. They had seven kids.”

Makic says the family was encouraged to pursue healthcare careers in a tradition that extended to Makic and her siblings.

“It was a huge, service-oriented, Irish-Catholic family,” she says. “Myself and two sisters became nurses.”

As the youngest child of her generation, Makic says she was the “most aggressive” in terms of her career trajectory.

“My sisters married pretty quickly out of college,” she says. “Even while they worked, their predominant focus was family. I’m the only one among them who sought to significantly advance my profession, impact, and influence.”

Makic earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from the University of Wisconsin School of Nursing, Madison in 1985. She then earned her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Baltimore in 1992.

“Throughout my career, I had amazing mentors,” she says.

One such mentor encouraged Makic on her path to the ICU and CNS during her first “real job” at the University of Virginia Health System at Charlottesville, Va.

“I had this amazing influence of leaders who were all CNSs,” she remembers. “I really liked taking care of critically ill patients, but I also liked knowing that the nurses knew what the heck they were doing, and if something was broken, the CNS would fix it.”

Before arriving in Colorado in 1994, Makic worked in Baltimore and Orlando – which provided something of a traumatic precursor to the care she’d later provide in the Colorado shootings.

“Charlottesville wasn’t the most violent city, but Baltimore was,” she says. “I saw a lot. Orlando wasn’t the nicest city either. Not that it made me hard, but it familiarized me with patients with certain injuries, and how to care for them.”

Almost every nurse we talked to said that what gave them the most joy was patient interactions. If I can help nurses be exceptional and love what they’re doing by improving their practices, that’s what keeps me going.”
– CU Nursing AG-CNS Specialty Director Mary Beth Flynn Makic, PhD ‘07, CNS


From CU Nursing and beyond

Having served on the ICU floor for many years, Makic enjoys her academic role and mentoring CNS leaders of the future at CU Nursing.

“Being a research scientist is fabulous,” she says. “Bedside clinicians have the best questions because they are the ones who are still struggling with the answers. I view my role as an opportunity to say, ‘that’s already been answered – let’s apply the evidence or ‘that’s a really good question – let’s study it.’”

Makic’s current research includes a study on the graduate-nurse experience during and after the pandemic.

“We’re trying to capture the people who stuck it out for the past three years and figure out what we’re doing right, what we can do better, and how do we retain these people,” she says.

Her findings show that patient interactions – rather than productivity metrics – might hold the key to retaining healthcare professionals, lead to better outcomes, and reduced costs.

“Almost every nurse we talked to said that what gave them the most joy was patient interactions,” she says. “If you could keep your focus on what gives you the most joy – no matter what role you are in – and if you can help someone maintain that joy, then they’ll likely stay in nursing. If I can help nurses be exceptional and love what they’re doing by improving their practices, that’s what keeps me going.”

Honors and awards, life outside of work

Over the years, Makic has earned many honors. She was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing in 2012, the National Academies of Practice in 2013, and the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists in 2019. She also received the Nightingale Luminary Award from the Central Colorado Area Health and Education Center in 2015, and the Magnet Nurse of the Year from University of Colorado Hospital in 2014. She is an author and co-editor of several textbooks used in college campuses worldwide.

Outside of the classroom, Makic also enjoys a full life. Her husband emigrated from Sarajevo in 1987 and much of his family followed suit during the Bosnian War of the 1990s.

“When I’m not working, I pretty much focus on my family,” she says. “I have two awesome adult children. My husband and I are active skiers, and we love to travel.”

Makic, who turns 60 in late December, believes there is much work to be done in acute and critical care, and she wants to play a part in it.

Though she no longer works at the ICU, Makic’s specialty aims to improve healthcare systems and outcomes so that nurses can operate better day-to-day.

While she has gleaned much wisdom and expertise over the years, she has no more perspective on senseless violence than the rest of us.

“You don’t make sense of it,” she says. “You just focus on your mission of helping those in front of you.”

Topics: Faculty