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Photography by Whitney Curtis
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For the fifth annual Excellence in Nursing Awards, SLM received more than 200 nominations from patients, physicians, and nursing colleagues who wished to recognize the region’s outstanding nursing professionals. A prestigious selection committee then scored the nominations and chose the finalists. (Note: Health organizations cannot pay to be included.) Finally, SLM spoke with the resulting 18 winners, getting a glimpse of what makes them so special.
Parkway School District
If Katherine Park were to map her career trajectory, she’d include some unexpected points of interest. Park started her career as a cartographer for the U.S. Department of Defense before making a dramatic career change. After 10 years of creating maps, she became a nurse, working for a year at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She enjoyed it, but she longed to teach others about health. That’s when she spotted an ad for a nursing position at Affton–Lindbergh Early Childhood Education. She immediately realized she’d found her niche.
“I just loved it,” she says. “There’s a lot of education that can be done in a school setting, because you’re educating students, but you’re also working with staff and parents.”
In 2003, she became the school nurse at Oak Brook Elementary School, where she’s worked ever since. “To be honest, I find school nursing much more difficult than when I was in the hospital,” she says. “When you’re in the school, you’re the only medical person… As far as the variety, it’s much more difficult than working a 12-hour shift at the hospital some days.” The closest comparison is a hospital’s emergency department, she says, because you never know what to expect next.
Still, Park does her best to anticipate students’ needs. Years ago, while she was tending to a kindergartner with diabetes whose second language was English, for instance, she recognized a growing need to help diabetic students. Over time, she developed a diabetes staff-training program and guidelines, which other Parkway schools have since adopted. “It takes a certain knack to be able to communicate as a school nurse,” she says, noting the school’s vast spectrum of personalities and backgrounds. (Of the grade school’s 500-plus students, Park estimates that she sees around 35 to 40 a day—“and that number can go way up during allergy season.”)
Park has come to understand an important lesson: “Kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for,” she says, “and they’re a lot more vulnerable than we realize sometimes.”
While arranging a phone interview with Paul Sevigny, we got a glimpse of his work ethic—and his approach to the job. Though it had only been a short time since we wrote to him, he replied, “I apologize for the delay in responding. I work straight 12-hour nights (7 p.m.–7 a.m.) and have been picking up quite a few overtime shifts.” He then added, “Twenty to 30 minutes seems like an eternity to talk about myself.”
But Sevigny’s former patients and colleagues already had done the talking for him. “Paul stayed over until 10:30 a.m. to help me with my assignment,” wrote a fellow nurse, “even though he had already worked his 12-hour night shift.” Another colleague described how he once helped a family agree on what music to play at a loved one’s memorial service. One doctor noted how Sevigny values others’ time, recalling one specific instance: “In only 37 seconds, I knew as much as any surgeon would need to know about how to direct the next steps in that particular situation.” And a family who’d spent time in the hospital wrote that Sevigny’s “attentiveness to not only the mind-boggling details of the ever-changing medical tasks at hand, but also the physical and emotional needs of the patient can be described as nothing less than astounding.”
Washington University School of Medicine
For several years, Georgia Stobbs-Cucchi has been the head research nurse for an ongoing National Institutes of Health–funded study on rotator cuff repair. In that role, she oversees 400 patients. “Nurses have a great niche, in that we can be advocates for patients and their rights,” she says. “With research, I’m in the position to make a change for the better.”
On completing the circle: “We’re in a unique spot to see patterns in care and institute change. We need research to vet our ideas and share them with other people. I am in a unique situation of a high-volume practice, so I can see unusual patients and work with local providers to give them important information to improve care.”
on nursing’s evolution: “When I became a nurse, research was not emphasized. The field has changed significantly since I entered it 15 years ago. It’s become much more regulated and formalized.”
On helping patients: “People are coming in to feel better, not to necessarily help our research. I explain to the patient what’s expected of them. Patients have to understand that being part of a study is a commitment, and it needs to be realistic for them. I do my best to build relationships with patients. When they can connect a face to the study, they’re often more willing to ask questions and continue to participate.”
Patsy Stapleton’s work as director of the BJH Center for Practice Excellence is a key reason that Barnes-Jewish Hospital was redesignated with the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Magnet Recognition in both 2008 and 2013. Stapleton is a champion of the shared governance model, which advocates staff participation in making all decisions regarding patient care.
Her biggest pet peeves: “Sometimes you don’t see results as quickly as you would like. A lot of factors can impact your ability to get work done, and that’s just something you have to learn to be OK with.”
On sharing leadership: “The shared governance structure is put in place to provide the nursing staff with an opportunity to share the decision-making throughout the organization. At the unit level, caregivers can look at issues that are arising and decide how they want to address them. On the organizational level, unit-practice council chairs come together to look at larger issues and identify solutions and new ways of doing work that will improve patient outcomes.”
Her advice to new nurses: “Things are never really finished. You can complete a project, but there may be an opportunity to make it better. You strive for excellence, not perfection. If you try to be perfect, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Hospice/Home Health/Palliative Care
St. Luke’s Hospital–Hospice Services
When Kristin Sanders did her obligatory turn on a medical/surgical floor, she felt “trapped. You don’t see the light of day for 12 hours!” She wound up doing in-home nursing instead, and grew fond of a patient in her nineties who was diagnosed with leukemia. Sanders stayed by the woman’s side until the end, listening to her stories of surviving World War II in Hungary.
Then she switched to hospice nursing.
“I used to hate being around the elderly,” she admits, blaming childhood visits to her great-grandmother in a nursing home, where she remembers people lined up in wheelchairs, reaching out to her. But for a nurse, “to be invited into someone’s home, into that intimate setting, and feel the trust they put in you—there aren’t words for it.”
Her first patient, a man in his early fifties, had a huge, deeply religious family. “About 25 people were with him the whole day, talking to him and singing to him,” she recalls. “You could just feel the joy in them.” It was the opposite of claustrophobic.
Saint Louis University School of Medicine, SLUCare; SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center
As a pediatric nurse practitioner on SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center’s Child Protection Team, Cara Christanell handles difficult cases. For the past 11 years, she’s provided exams for sexually abused children. “One of my principles is that the child is always in charge,” she says. “They are never forced to do anything they’re not comfortable with.”
She and her colleagues work with children’s-advocacy services in Missouri and Illinois. “We have a great team, and we diffuse a lot with each other,” she says. “We also have several social workers; talking things out with them is a big stress reliever.
Christanell also provides prosecutorial evidence against abusers, sharing information with law-enforcement officials and legal experts about cases. “My goal is to educate them and try to get on their level,” she says. “I explain anatomy in regular terms and try to explain how it’s possible that the things the child said happened to them could have happened without leaving a scar or injury.”
It’s a tough job, one involving cases that aren’t always resolved. “It’s difficult that I can’t always ensure that a child leaving here will be safe,” she says. Still, there are small moments of encouragement. “When I’m done with an exam and a child gives me a big hug, knowing that they’ve found a trusted adult for a moment, it’s very rewarding.”
SSM St. Clare Health Center
Defiant at age 18, Becky Florian wasn’t about to become a nurse like her mother. She became a medical assistant instead, doing a lot of the same things for less money. By the time she went to nursing school, she was a single parent with two small children: “My 5-year-old and I would sit at the table, and I would do my homework in pathophysiology, and she would color.”
Florian became an operating-room nurse and eventually managed an OR in Atlanta, supervising 118 employees. “Five years of that was enough,” she says—she left to be a risk analyst. Then she heard from two physicians who’d driven her crazy in the OR. They were starting a breast center, and they wanted her to work there.
Florian had gone through a double mastectomy and reconstruction three years earlier. She wasn’t eager to revisit the experience. But the docs persisted until she said yes. She went with patients to their first chemo session, broke good and bad news, and helped them navigate their care. She now does the same at SSM St. Clare. “I don’t tell all my patients I’m a breast-cancer survivor,” she says. “But if someone reminds me of that moment when I was told—if they completely shut down and their focus goes pinpoint and they really struggle to open it back up…” She takes them by the hand. “I will be with you as much as you want me to be,” she tells them. “I will walk this path with you.”
Acute Care/Family Practice/General Medicine
Washington University School of Medicine
As a staff nurse anesthetist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Michael Rybak has access to state-of-the-art equipment and a large team of medical experts. But in his other job, as a nurse anesthetist for the U.S. Army, that’s not always the case. In 2012, while caring for a soldier in Afghanistan, for instance, Rybak had to rely on a classical local-anesthetic technique when newer technology failed. “That provided that soldier with some well-needed pain relief,” he says, adding that the patient fully recovered afterward.
Such a dramatic example is the exception, though, Rybak says. He sees many parallels between his roles here and abroad. “My civilian and military careers have augmented each other,” he says. “The cases we see at Barnes-Jewish are pretty big and complex, and that translated to complex trauma patients I saw while overseas.” He’s shared what he’s learned with comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in St. Louis, while working at Barnes-Jewish, Rybak is “always the first to help others during a crisis in the operating room,” notes one of his colleagues. The same is true abroad. After mortars from an Iraqi Army war exercise accidentally landed on a nearby soccer field, injuring a young Iraqi boy, Rybak and his colleagues rushed to help. The medical team resuscitated the child, who spent three months in the hospital. “Even after I left the facility, they were still sending updates about this young boy,” Rybak says. “We made a huge impact on his life.”
It’s the knowledge that he’s able to make such a difference for patients that keeps Rybak focused while he’s away from his wife and children. “They depend on us wholeheartedly,” he says of his patients. “They’re trusting us to wake them up at the end of the procedure in restored health.”
As a clinical nurse specialist in the Barnes-Jewish intensive-care unit, Donna Prentice helps patients and families through crises. In addition to managing other nurses, she works with departments throughout the hospital to reduce patient readmissions and improve critical-care education.
Her advice to new nurses: “It’s never going to be a dull job, and it’s never going to be a routine experience. You have to be passionate, someone who can handle change and think quickly. It’s OK if it takes you six months or a year to be comfortable.”
On the rewards of being a leader: “I really like when a staff nurse identifies a problem, and I can support them through the process of trying to find a solution.”
When Stacy Smugala began training as a nurse, she was drawn to surgical cases. Now, as an adult nurse practitioner in the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, she has also discovered a knack for leadership and education.
On handling stress: “I consider all of my patients like family. Instead of stressing out about things, I try to step back and look at it from their point of view.”
Her advice to others: “Colon cancer is very curable if caught at an early stage. I would encourage everyone to get a colonoscopy—not only ages 50 and up, but also according to family history. The number of patients under 40 with colon and rectal cancer is going up, and it’s often in more advanced stages.”
Saint Louis University School of Nursing
Dorcas McLaughlin chose psychiatric nursing so she’d have more time to hear people’s stories. She was first drawn to the collaborative energy of group therapy, then to the new technique of psychodrama. After studying for years with a psychodramatist trained by Zerka Moreno, the method’s co-founder, McLaughlin realized managed care’s stabilize-and-release timetable had erased all chance of using psychodrama in a hospital setting. So she went into practice on her own and did a Ph.D. on post-traumatic stress disorder, because she’d realized that once psychodrama unlocked the emotions, “almost everybody’s story was about trauma.”
Today, McLaughlin teaches psychodrama at SLU’s School of Nursing, and she’s watching neuroscience explain why this intuitive method works so powerfully. Psychodrama uses lighting, sensory cues, muscle memory, and symbolic props like empty chairs that allow somebody to reverse roles. “You are reenacting life scenes that are difficult or challenging or unfinished,” McLaughlin explains. The idea is to understand the various roles and expand your own. “If you have a greater repertoire,” she says, “then no matter what life brings, you will be able to respond.”
While on her way to an orthopedic conference in D.C., Karen Holtmann awakened to the cries of flight attendants. A passenger had lost consciousness and was slumped over in his seat. She rushed to the man. Realizing that he wasn’t breathing, she quickly initiated CPR and directed the flight attendants to grab an emergency bag with IV fluids. She then asked the pilot to make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. Several weeks later, Holtmann received a bouquet of flowers and a note. It simply read, “Thanks for saving my dad’s life.”
Holtmann’s ability to think quickly and work under pressure also make her a major asset to Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s orthopedic shoulder, elbow, and hand team.
“Working in the surgical/trauma ICU…gave me a lot of experience dealing with acute situations and made me more confident over time,” she explains. “It made me more independent and more comfortable working by myself.”
An adult nurse practitioner in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Holtmann cares for both outpatient and inpatient surgery patients, including on the operating-room floor. Describing a typical day, she says, “After making the initial rounds with the doctor, I try to visit patients by myself later in the day. They normally feel more comfortable asking me questions on my own, and it really helps them out.”
For her, the job’s rewards are twofold. “I love the team that I work with—they really value what I do and trust me,” she says. “I also enjoy taking care of my patients and seeing them go from the beginning of their care before surgery to the end of their care.”
Dolan Memory Care Homes
Even in nursing school, Toni Dewhirst “always gravitated toward the older people, because they appreciate you so much.” After stints as director of nursing at conventional nursing facilities, she learned about Tim Dolan’s cozy, unclinical approach, with no more than 11 residents per home. “When you know your patient that well,” she says, “you know what they need.”
At Dolan Memory Care Homes, where Dewhirst oversees care for residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia-related disorders, the kitchen’s never closed. “We get rid of all the ‘Nos.’ They can wander and rummage and help out—even if they fold the clothes backwards. It’s very happy.” Asked whether she goes along with residents’ version of reality, Dewhirst grins. “Oh yeah. We’re in Disneyland every day. When you walk through the door, you enter their world.”
She reminds children “not to ask a zillion questions about what their parent did that day—because they don’t know. And then the aggravation starts.” If someone calls a daughter by a sister’s name, Dewhirst says gently, “They’re probably looking for a younger version of you.” She’s learned to focus on what her patients can give: reminders of what’s important. Warm, startling understanding when she lost her husband last summer. And reassurance that a loss of memory doesn’t have to mean an end to joy.
Saint Louis University School of Nursing
A professor at Saint Louis University School of Nursing for more than 40 years, Judith Carlson has mentored countless undergrads on their way to becoming nurses. Last year, she received the James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award.
Her advice to students: “Be true to yourself. Enjoy it. Have a passion for it. If your answer to those three things is a resounding yes, you are well on your way to success.”
On the profession’s greatest rewards: “I love watching the students grow and develop at a really vulnerable time in their lives. We have students who are highly motivated and really understand the importance of the job.”
Mercy Hospital St. Louis
The letters are enough to bring you to tears—stories of heartache, about parents losing little ones at a tender age. Yet they also detail how Margaret Loyet helped these families carry on. “The entire time that I was in the hospital, Maggie was there when I called her, day or night,” wrote one patient. “She always knows the exact right thing to say.” Another patient noted how Loyet created special mementos—such as a baby book with footprints and a lock of hair—and called every year on her late daughter’s birthday.
“There’s not a road map to grief,” says Loyet, a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “When parents experience this, they’re so devastated and overwhelmed, it’s helpful to help them slow down a little bit and take one step at a time.” While they’re at the hospital, she encourages them to spend time with their children and create keepsakes. “If you think about when you experience a loss, one of the things that helps you to heal is to feel close to that person,” she says. “With an adult, you have lots of memories, but with a baby, you don’t have as much time. Every single thing we do gives the parents some memories that help them to heal and feel close to their baby.”
Gradually, Loyet gives them more information about dealing with loss, encouraging them to attend support groups through the Mercy HeartPrints program, which she’s overseen since 1989. She also sends thoughtful items to former patients, years after they were in the neonatal unit. When one dad lost a ring she’d mailed out for a previous Father’s Day, he hesitantly asked her for a replacement. “I don’t know if you realize how special the little things are,” he told her, “how much it means to us.”
Washington University School of Medicine
Diane Athmer insists she never chose nursing—it was always a part of her. A clincial nurse coordinator, she works with cancer patients over time, allowing her to provide continuity of care and follow-through.
Her advice to new nurses: “While you have to be compassionate, you also have to be honest with the patient. It’s very scary knowing you've been diagnosed with cancer, but the worst part is not knowing what comes next.”
Her advice to patients: “Give yourself permission to rest. Your job is to make sure you take care of yourself emotionally and physically. Give yourself a year to listen to your body and do what you need to do to get better and get through this.”
Saint Louis University Hospital
Registered nurse Kathryn Howard has dedicated her career to helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Working to educate nurses about forensic cases and the importance of collaborating with police and other organizations, she’s helped improve the methods and level of patient care at the hospital, especially for traumatized patients.
Her greatest challenge: “When a victim comes into the emergency room, the nurse is the only person who’s responsible for evidence collection. If you don’t know what you’re do-ing, their chance to come forward may die with you. It’s a tremendous responsibility to not traumatize them further, but to also get the evidence needed.”
On working as a team: “It’s easy to think this is ‘your’ case, but you’re not working alone. You’re working with the police, you may testify in court, you may work with the crime lab, and you’re working with advocates from the [Sexual Assault Response Team] center. You’re not working in a vacuum, and you need to be willing to do that. It’s not easy.”
On handling stress: “When the victims come in, they’ve been traumatized; they’re distrustful and hurting emotionally as well as physically. The stress reliever is to see how they are when they leave. To know that I’ve done my best and have been a comfort to that victim, to me, that alone is worth it.”
Community Care/Ambulatory Care
Washington University School of Medicine
Before working at Wash. U.’s medical campus, Kathleen O’Neal served in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, where senior nurses encouraged her to learn on a continual basis. “Certainly with nursing, there’s learning every day on the job,” she says. Following that early advice, she recently earned a master’s degree in nursing—though she already had 40 years of experience.
O’Neal believes the responsibilities given to her at a young age helped define her nursing career, fueling her fire to help others. “I think it’s in my nature as a nurse,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to help people and care for them.” In her work, she often sees patients who are dealing with chronic pain. Despite the difficulties of her job, though, she finds it rewarding. “My greatest reward is that the patients feel like they have someone that they can talk to,” she says, “who will listen to them.”
Congratulations to all of SLM’s 2014 Excellence in Nursing Awards finalists.
Acute Care/Family Practice/General Medicine
• Christian Boyce, SSM DePaul Health Center
• Jessica Doiron, Washington University School of Medicine
• Lisa Koester, Washington University School of Medicine
• Stacey Lindley, Christian Hospital
• Michael Rybak, Washington University School of Medicine
• John Cornett, SSM St. Joseph Health Center
• Emily Dodd, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Dana Gima, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Christine Hinden, St. Luke’s Hospital
• Paul Sevigny, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
Community Care/Ambulatory Care
• Kristin Kolley, Washington University School of Medicine
• Kathleen O’Neal, Washington University School of Medicine
• Amy Pytlinski, St. Louis Dermatology & Surgery Center
• Judith Carlson, Saint Louis University School of Nursing
• Shelly O’Malley-Robinson, St. Anthony’s Medical Center
• Mary Schurk, University of Missouri–St. Louis
• Patricia Ahrens, SSM St. Mary’s Health Center
• Kathryn Howard, Saint Louis University Hospital
• Ariella Teater, SSM DePaul Health Center
Hospice/Home Health/Palliative Care
• Mary Buchek, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Kristin Sanders, St. Luke’s Hospital–Hospice Services
• Roxanne Fitzgerald, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Michele Gatzert, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Donna Prentice, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Bethany Westlake, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Katherine Barnes, SSM St. Mary’s Health Center
• Kathleen Bonser, SSM DePaul Health Center
• Michelle Hawk, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center
• Gayle Reneer, SSM DePaul Health Center
• Patsy Stapleton, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Ronald Griffin, VA St. Louis Health Care System
• Brenda Hall, Washington University School of Medicine
• Bonnie Johnston, Washington University School of Medicine
• Stacy Smugala, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Jeanette Stoney, Washington University School of Medicine
• Dawn Lintzenich, Washington University School of Medicine
• Dorcas McLaughlin, Saint Louis University School of Nursing
• Cathy Patterson, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Marjorie Viehland, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Diane Athmer, Washington University School of Medicine
• Nancy Larson-Vomund, Washington University School of Medicine
• Lisa Salem, BJC HealthCare, Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital
• Karen Holtmann, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Anne Janson, SSM St. Clare Health Center
• Jeanine Johnson, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Beth Paige, Barnes-Jewish Hospital
• Margaret Loyet, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Peggy Rasp, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center
• Jamie Wunderlich, Missouri Baptist Medical Center
• Cynthia Lynne Brooks, St. Louis Children’s Hospital
• Cara Christanell, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, SLUCare; SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center
• Rachel Elledge, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center
• MaryAlice McCubbins, Washington University School of Medicine; St. Louis Children’s Hospital
• Georgia Stobbs-Cucchi, Washington University School of Medicine
• Michael Klebert, Washington University School of Medicine
• Debra DeMarco Shaw, Washington University School of Medicine
• Katherine Park, Parkway School District
• Susan Rozier, Chaminade College Preparatory School
• Kristen Anthony, Bethesda Health Group
• Toni Dewhirst, Dolan Memory Care Homes
• Jane Olsen, Accu-Care Home Nurses
• Becky Florian, SSM St. Clare Health Center
• Lynn Hayward, Missouri Baptist Medical Center
• Charlotte Lewinski, Missouri Baptist Medical Center
• Amy McLean, Mercy Hospital St. Louis
• Joann Schramm, St. Anthony’s Medical Center
Special Thanks: 2014 Selection Committee
Geraldine “Polly” Bednash
CEO and Executive Director, American Association of Colleges of Nursing
Dean, University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Nursing & Health Studies
Senior Vice President/Chief Clinical Officer, GetWellNetwork
Assistant Dean, Nursing Outreach, University of Missouri–Columbia Sinclair School of Nursing
Professor, Indiana University School of Nursing; Director, IU Online
Chief Nursing Officer, Mayo Clinic–Jacksonville, Fla.
President, Missouri Nurses Association
Phyllis Arn Zimmer
President, Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation
By Kim Aubuchon, Jeannette Cooperman, Nancy Curtis, Jarrett Medlin, and Sandra Zak