Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s, WSU partner to create a pipeline for rural healthcare
By the time Carley Sylvester graduated from nursing school, she had lived in the Twin Cities, La Crosse, and Rochester. But she chose to return to her native Wabasha to start her career.
“There’s something about Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s that you don’t find at other places,” Sylvester said. “I’ve learned so much about how to treat people, how to be my own person and how to act with respect. Here, nobody works in siloes. From start to finish, the care is holistic.”
It’s that holistic, supportive care that Winona State University professor Terese Hemmingsen tries to share with her students – working registered nurses returning to education for a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Hemmingsen has a vested interest. She practiced at then-St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center for 28 years and witnessed the benefits and balance working and living in a smaller community.
“My students often have the belief that if you work in rural healthcare, you’re just working with one age group or a certain population,” Hemmingsen said.
Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s nurse practitioner Zhonghua (Jessica) Xie agrees. Originally from China, Xie graduated nursing school in Japan before working in an intensive care unit in Asahi, Chiba, Japan.
While she loves practicing in a small town, Xie says there can be stereotypes comparing urban and rural healthcare.
“Whether it’s rural or urban healthcare, our standards as practitioners and providers are the same,” she said.
And with La Crosse, Winona and Rochester nearby, she says practicing in Wabasha doesn’t really feel remote.
“Practicing in a more rural area encourages us to band together as a team, to use our resources and think on our feet,” she said.
Hemmingsen added, “Rural healthcare is incredibly exciting and ever-changing. One day can include a trauma, a cardiac event and a pediatric care visit.”
The nursing professor is a first-generation high school and college graduate. Seven weeks after her third child was born, she returned to school for an associate degree in nursing. While practicing at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, she earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing, her master's degree in nursing education and her Doctorate of Nursing degree.
“I know how hard it is for these nurses to go back to school at this stage in life. For most of them, this is their second career,” Hemmingsen said. “And many of them have spouses, families and busy schedules.”
Like WSU students and registered nurses Michael Sampson and Nadia Hauger. Last fall Sampson and Hauger, in the same cohort, sat at a table in the main corridor of Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s and shared about the importance of radon kits. This was part of Wellness Wednesday, a wellness initiative between WSU and Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s.
Sampson, 30, works at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire on the neuro/peds/trauma unit. Hauger, 29, works at Mayo Clinic Health System in Rochester on the organ transplant floor.
After graduating and working for a couple years, both returned to school to get their RN degree. Now they’re earning their BSN which will give them more options and opportunities in the future.
This mutually beneficial relationship gives students like Sampson and Hauger a peek at rural healthcare while allowing nurses at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s to take a breather. Nurses like Julie Hirsch.
In 2019, Hirsch took on her current role at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s as employee health nurse. A year into her new assignment, a global pandemic swept across the country.
“I was fielding COVID-like illness calls and testing team members multiple times a week,” Hirsch recalled. “As a small but mighty team of three employee health nurses, we were on call 24/7.”
By fall 2021, Hirsch was exhausted. When approached, she accepted a boost from Hemmingsen’s students to help launch and run an employee flu clinic.
“Those students did a fantastic job,” Hirsch said. “It was a win-win for them, for me and for our employees.”
Hemmingsen hopes that if or when Sampson, Hauger and others are ready for a workplace change, they’ll remember that rural healthcare isn’t as far away as they think.
“Often we hear about nursing shortages in big cities and larger hospitals,” Hemmingsen said. “But rural healthcare faces just as many hardships. And most nursing students aren’t exposed to rural healthcare as a possible career path.”
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