Health & Fitness

Nurses Hold Our Hospitals Together

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Nurses provide physical, emotional and sometimes even spiritual care to their patients. Step into the busy, yet rewarding lives of four nurses at our area hospitals.

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Being a nurse is hard work. The job involves caring for patients and their families, demonstrating confidence at all times and thinking critically on a daily basis. We’re fortunate to have qualified, compassionate nurses serving at each of our area hospitals. These stories provide just a sliver of a glimpse into their daily lives.

Impacting an Entire Family

Kaleena Tolsma gave birth to her second child just in time for Mother’s Day. But when the holiday arrived, she felt miserable.

Extreme pain on her right side led the 32-year-old mom to visit an immediate care clinic.

“They assumed it was a kidney stone, so they sent me home while they looked at some tests,” Tolsma says.

But later that night, she came down with a fever. Then the vomiting began. That’s when Tolsma decided to go to the emergency room. She wound up receiving care at Rockford’s SwedishAmerican Hospital, a division of UW Health. Her blood pressure was alarmingly low.

“It was interesting when I first arrived at Swedes,” Tolsma says. “I was actually feeling better because the pain had gone away.”

After chatting with a nurse, Tolsma learned her case was tricky. Besides her “off” blood pressure, she seemed fine.

It turned out a kidney stone was part of the problem, after all. But surgery revealed other complications.

“Because of my age, they think my body fought a lot longer than some might,” Tolsma says. “They took me back into surgery right away, and that’s when the urologist discovered an infection throughout my body. It was bad.”

Tolsma was induced into a coma and put on a ventilator. By that point, she was septic and experiencing total organ failure.

That’s when Jennifer “Ginger” ElBrichi took over with Tolsma’s care. The registered nurse and certified critical care nurse has been with SwedishAmerican since 1981.

“I love critical care; it’s the best fit for me,” ElBrichi says. “Usually, you have two patients. Unless you have a very critically ill patient, and then you might just have the one. So, you provide everything the patient needs. You assess them regularly, provide care, educate them and inspire them to get better.”

Tolsma was four weeks postpartum when she entered the critical care unit, and breastfeeding her newborn baby was important to her. Since she was unable to communicate in her condition, her family spoke up on her behalf.

“One of the critical care nurses asked my family if they could pump for me, which was so amazing to us all that they thought to do that,” Tolsma says.

Her family agreed, and ElBrichi initiated the process of pumping Tolsma’s breast every three hours around the clock.

“Sometimes not getting much, sometimes just a drop, and sometimes nothing at all, but it allowed her breasts to continue to make milk so she would be able to go home and nurse,” ElBrichi says.

Tolsma stayed in the critical care unit for about five days. At one point, she needed to have a four-hour X-ray taken to evaluate her infection. It was a harrowing process, but ElBrichi stayed with Tolsma the entire time.

“I had to be away from the department with her while she was on a ventilator and all of these massive drugs, and sit in the X-ray department with really nobody else there except her and me,” ElBrichi describes. “She was very ill. When you went into her room, you ran and you worked all day. There was no stopping or sitting.”

When Tolsma woke up, she had no idea who ElBrichi was. But her family clued her in.

“It’s amazing to me,” Tolsma says. “You could tell Ginger was a favorite with my family – everybody loved her. We’ve been back a few times to visit, just to see her and some of the other staff. I know, to them, it’s just what they do, it’s not a big deal. But it makes a big difference to the families they’re helping.”

For her efforts with Tolsma, ElBrichi earned the 2018 Daisy Award for Extraordinary Nurses, which recognizes exemplary bedside nursing care.

ElBrichi is modest about the achievement.

“I love what I do and I’m very passionate about it,” she says. “There aren’t many careers where you can touch people’s lives and people’s lives can touch you. I don’t go to work for the paycheck. Of course, I need one like everybody else, but it’s about doing the right thing and doing a great job.”

Unfortunately, due to heart complications that developed, Tolsma wasn’t able to breastfeed in the end. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort from the SwedishAmerican nurses.

Tolsma was so appreciative of her care that she attended the ceremony where ElBrichi was given the Daisy award. Tolsma plans to visit SwedishAmerican Hospital at least once a year with some goodies for the staff.

“When we think of nurses, we think of the physical care,” Tolsma says. “That’s obviously the primary thing, and there are nurses who have a lot of knowledge and expertise. I think with Ginger, we saw one of them. But it’s all the extra care nurses provide in addition. It’s that extra mile they go in caring for the families. I just think they’re so wonderful.”

Building Personal Connections

Judy Carter tears up when she remembers Tracy Bohm. As a registered nurse working on the orthopedics floor at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Carter has seen a fair share of trauma patients. But Bohm was someone who she was truly able to help both physically and emotionally.

“He was in a motorcycle accident,” Carter recalls. “He was driving with his wife. He didn’t see a sign that said the speed limit goes down to 20, and he was going around a bend.”

Bohm broke nine ribs, his left wrist, and the fibula and tibia in his left leg. His wife, Anita, had it worse.

“She went to the [Intensive Care Unit], so I never met her,” Carter says. “She was critical and had several injuries.”

The accident happened June 30, 2018, in Morrison, Ill. The couple were Life Flighted to OSF.

Bohm doesn’t remember much about arriving at the hospital, but he’ll never forget the care he received from Carter during his three-week stay. He appreciated how she would sit eye-level at his bedside and just talk with him.

“She’s a great all-around person,” Bohm says. “She was just down-to-earth and so genuine.”

Emotional care came into play when Bohm remembered that his youngest daughter, Clorissa, was having a birthday on July 13. Even though he was in the hospital, he wanted to do something special for her.

Without hesitation, Carter offered to buy a birthday card and cake after her shift.

“As a nurse, you try to be in tune with your patients emotionally,” she says. “I like to talk to my patients, sit down with them, and listen to their story. This was something I could do.”

Carter even thought of a clever plan to surprise Clorissa.

“Being an orthopedic floor, a lot of people get constipated, so I told Tracy to turn on his call light and ask for prune juice when his daughter showed up,” Carter laughs. “It was a code, and I told 90 percent of the staff, ‘If he says he needs prune juice, let me know so I can get the cake in there.’”

The plan was perfectly executed, and a group of staff members sang “Happy Birthday” to Clorissa as Carter brought in a chocolate cake. It meant a lot to the whole Bohm family.

“It’s not everybody who steps up and says, ‘I’ll do your running for you,’” Bohm says. “Most people wouldn’t do that, from my experience in the past. I just thought it was great. She went above and beyond to do that.”

But to Carter, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s natural for her to maintain a positive, compassionate attitude throughout the day.

Carter has been at OSF for almost 20 years. Heather Just, the Nurse Manager at OSF, considers her to be one of the most impressive nurses she’s come across.

“This is a high-volume unit, so we have a rapid discharge rate,” Just says. “That’s why I think what Judy does is such an art form. To make connections with people in such a short amount of time is an art. And it’s so impactful for the patient.”

Being a Level I trauma center, OSF provides treatment for a steady volume of trauma patients and elective surgical patients (such as patients seeking hip or knee replacements). But regardless of what needs to be done, patients who end up on the orthopedics floor are inevitably going to experience significant changes.

“Any surgery here is going to impact your life,” Just says. “Patients are going to have to be away from work for a while, or take time out of their daily life, so there are stressors in that. Judy is really intuitive of the fact that their lives are changing significantly in a short amount of time. She helps alleviate a lot of suffering.”

Tracy and Anita are both still recovering, slowly but surely. Anita has been in critical condition since the accident but came out of a coma on July 29. She spent three weeks at OSF before being transferred to a hospital in Springfield, Ill., where she’s currently receiving care.

Tracy’s ribs and wrist are feeling much better. His leg is often sore from doing physical therapy, but he’s getting around with a walker and working toward full mobility.

“On that ortho floor, I never had a bad nurse,” he says. “All of the nurses treated me decently. They were all good people. But Judy and I clicked and had a special bond.”

The Office Versus the Bedside

Having a baby changed Doreen Timm’s entire career path. She had a circuitous route to becoming the chief nursing officer at Mercyhealth’s Rockton Avenue and Riverside hospitals in Rockford.

“I actually have two associate degrees from Rock Valley College, one of them in accounting,” she says. “I worked in the business world for a few years and although it was challenging, it wasn’t providing me the professional fulfillment I thought it would.”

But after having her daughter, she experienced a powerful realization.

“I had a moment where I had two really great nurses and one not-so-great nurse,” Timm explains. “I felt called to do this. I wanted to be like the two really great nurses, and I knew I could do better than the nurse I had that bad experience with. I felt how impactful each one of those experiences was on my life, and that I wanted to be a part of that.”

So, even though Timm had a newborn, she went back to school and graduated from OSF Saint Anthony College of Nursing in 1996, thus beginning her nursing career. She was working in pediatric cardiology when Mercyhealth (then Rockford Memorial Hospital) came calling.

She joined Mercyhealth as a pediatric educator, while simultaneously earning her master’s degree in nursing from Rush University in 2004.

“My job at that point was to provide staff education, integrate best practices, and really just make sure we were providing the best care to every patient at every single moment,” Timm says.

She continued to gain more responsibilities throughout the years, culminating in her becoming the chief nursing officer in 2018. Currently, her biggest project is preparing for the grand opening of Mercyhealth-Riverside Hospital in January 2019. It’s her job to make sure all equipment, trained staff and patient-centered technology are present at the new hospital.

“I have a lot of experience with our policies, our quality – basically, all the standards that are the foundation of our nursing division,” Timm explains. “I just really want to be the best. That’s really important to me. My family gets care here. My friends get care here. I live here. It’s very important to me that we’re delivering the very best care at every moment.”

On the clinical side, Mercyhealth’s Tereasa Bethea focuses on delivering bedside care to patients. She works on the orthopedics floor as a registered nurse and oftentimes works with patients who are on hospice care.

From personal experience, she can relate to the families of her patients.

“I actually had the privilege of taking care of my 93-year-old great-aunt,” Bethea says. “And as you know, when you care for a patient, you’re also caring for their family. So, I was definitely a family caregiver during that time.”

It’s not uncommon for Bethea to interact with patient family members who are hurt, angry and emotionally struggling, especially when a hospice patient has a terminal diagnosis.

“You know, the anger isn’t really about us. It’s about the circumstance,” Bethea says. “Nursing is about giving non-judgmental, non-biased care. We have to step out of ourselves to take care of our patient and their family. It’s not always easy, but definitely worth it.”

Last year, Bethea had a woman who displayed anger toward the staff when her father was put on hospice. But Bethea walked with her through every step of the process, sharing stories of her own experience along the way.

“Being able to provide first-hand knowledge really turned her around,” Bethea says. “When he ultimately passed, she even called me to say, ‘You know, I wasn’t the nicest, but you were always professional.’ To me, that makes it worth it.”

It’s important to Bethea to share as much knowledge as possible with her patients and their families. But equally important, she strives to provide educational tools to nurses just starting out in the field.

Her thirst to share knowledge led her to become the lead preceptor in Mercyhealth’s medical/surgical unit, meaning she guides new nurses through an orientation process.

“That’s actually something I’m really proud of, because education is huge for me,” Bethea says. “I do a lot of mentoring. It’s more than passing a pill, it’s the compassionate portion of the interaction.”

Overall, her top priority is patient satisfaction.

“My goal is to provide patients with compassionate, non-judgmental, unbiased care that will ultimately lead them to success,” Bethea says. “I model that for every nurse I train.”

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