Meet our top nurse finalists

We decided to recognize every nurse who was nominated in our biennial program.
Oakwood Village Hebron Oaks Nursing Team
Courtesy of Oakwood Village

Every year, selecting only a select few Top Nurses is nearly impossible. Each nominee is deserving of an award. This year especially, as our nurses have become essential workers, we decided to recognize every nurse who was nominated in our biennial program.

Find profiles on the six selected top nurses here.

Teaming up
In transitioning to treat patients with the coronavirus, four teams of local nurses had to readjust. Every day, the Oakwood Village Hebron Oaks Nursing Team, also had to take on extra responsibilities. From coordinating family FaceTime chats to accompanying patients during meals, nurses worked to ensure not just the physical safety of their patients but their mental health as well. Oakwood Village was among the first nursing homes to handle a small outbreak of cases, and the clinical team worked quickly to develop a care wing, change daily scheduling and educate residents on how to protect themselves at home. Their efforts were ultimately successful — Oakwood was able to protect patients. At SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, the 4SW team was notified less than a day in advance that they would become the second unit caring for COVID-19 patients. The team, which originally worked as a general surgery unit, displayed courage in quickly adapting to new responsibilities and supported each other and patients during this challenging transition. The F6/5 nursing team at University Hospital faced similar challenges — having to develop ways to care for COVID-19 patients from scratch and constantly adopt new care guidelines. This group of nurses took on extra roles to minimize the number of staff exposed to patients and even arranged virtual visits for patients so they could share a meal with their families online. The Trauma and Life Support Center at UW Health became the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at UW Health. The group was composed of two nursing units to staff the new unit. The team sat with patients at the end of their lives when family members could not be present. They also implemented communication tools and technology to make sure families were connected. –CY

Finding PPE Solutions
Personal protective equipment was always crucial for nurses, but it’s even more critical during a global pandemic. Three nurses innovated to protect themselves and their patients. One nurse, Anna Briody, used her knowledge as a wound ostomy continence nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s to find a way to prevent skin breakdown in nurses and doctors wearing N95 masks for long hours. Briody dedicated some of her time to researching solutions to protect staff members’ cheeks and noses. On top of this, she found ways to protect COVID-19 ICU patients’ skin, including through the use of preventive dressings and special positioning devices that could protect areas vulnerable to skin breakdown. Amanda Runnoe, vice president of quality and clinical operations for Heritage Senior Living, is another innovator when it comes to PPE. She developed a PPE tracking system, educated local teams on its use and oversaw all of Heritage’s COVID-19 precautions. As soon as COVID-19 started affecting Wisconsinites, Runnoe tried to find precautionary measures to ensure residents stayed safe. Stephanie Barman at UnityPoint Health – Meriter volunteered to sew more than 100 cloth masks for every staff member in her department, and she personalized each one. Barman, the lead nurse coordinator in the gynecology operating room, gave them out for free. She also volunteered to serve as a primary surgical nurse for a patient who was COVID-19 positive, so the originally assigned nurse, who was pregnant, wouldn’t have to take such a risk. –CY

Embracing New Roles
Two nurses just beginning their professional careers took on new responsibilities as health care workers in the midst of a pandemic. Ellen Courchane continued to work at SSM Health with a smile, despite having to reconsider her upcoming August wedding date to her high school sweetheart. Her sister, who nominated her, recalled her text messages growing more alarming as Courchane began to leave earlier for work and get home later. Then Courchane was laid off, but the 25-year-old never held a grudge and later returned to a promotion as a floor charge nurse. Elizabeth “Libby” Horan showed a similar resilience in her work at Mendota Mental Health Institute, where she worked while finishing her University of Wisconsin–Madison degree online. Horan started as a certified nursing assistant at MMHI before deciding to go to school. She faced extraordinary challenges to building relationships with patients, but Horan sacrificed her personal life to self-isolate, keeping her patients safe and entertained with her card game skills and Monday night narrations of “The Bachelor.” She became a registered nurse without the usual pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation and earned a promotion at Mendota. –CY

Caring for the Homeless
Social distancing, testing and finding personal protective equipment have been particularly difficult in Madison’s homeless population. Along with Nurse Disrupted, two other nominated nurses have been addressing these needs. Jennifer Weitzel, a nurse with Public Health Madison and Dane County, went from managing a home visiting program for pregnant mothers and new parents (up to two years old) to overseeing a quarantine center for people who are homeless. This happened overnight. Weitzel stepped up to the challenge and facilitated communication among many partners to quickly get the center up and running to help homeless individuals, who have higher rates of comorbidities that put them at risk for serious COVID-19 illness and who present a higher risk of community spread. Lauren Jerzak, a registered nurse at UnityPoint Health – Meriter, is also working to break down barriers to health care. A member of the Helping Educate and Link the Homeless Program, Jerzak is known to local hospitals as “the Beacon nurse” for her consistent work helping people at The Beacon, a resource center for those experiencing homelessness in Dane County. Jerzak advocated for her patients to receive health care and worked with Meriter to provide medications for symptomatic homeless people isolating in a hotel. Jerzak pushed for mass testing in shelters and led a partnership of four local homeless shelters to provide biweekly mass testing. –CY

Eternal Gratitude For Our Nurses

When the coronavirus pandemic began, Julie Astrella, an assistant nursing professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, was forced to stay away from her office and her students. As a former floor nurse, she applies her practice to her teaching, and despite the challenges, she worked to make sure her students had an amazing experience. Her nominator, who happens to be her husband, says she is someone who is “teaching the next generation of the most trusted profession in the country.”

Even for someone with 35 years of nursing experience, Bonnie Ball, the critical care nurse director at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, was faced with unprecedented challenges. But Ball emerged as a leader who addressed logistics and mental preparation for caring for critically ill patients, her nominators say, including the coordination of moving entire nursing units to other physical locations three times.

Stephanie Blazejewski is normally a nurse at the Transformations Surgery Center at UW Health, but she volunteered to take on other roles at University Hospital during the pandemic. She helped patients get mandatory COVID-19 tests before their surgical procedures and answered their questions.

One of our 2018 Top Nurses, Kevin Franco Valle, nominated UnityPoint Health – Meriter Neurology floor RN Jesse Christianson, who Franco Valle says overcame a lot to become a nurse. Christianson has an ability to engage with even the most distrustful patient, Franco Valle says, and he will go out of his way to make a patient feel less scared and alone, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small acts of kindness go a long way, and Deb Dalsing, a nurse manager on University Hospital’s Acute Medical Progressive Unit-D6/5, embodies that sentiment in her work. Whether it was being available to her nurses off-shift to talk about stressors, bringing in fruit and doughnuts, having an open-door policy or helping a COVID-19 patient celebrate a birthday, Dalsing’s actions boosted morale considerably during a difficult time.

As a clinical nurse specialist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, Sarah Donnell researches best practices for the four units she supports. She also chairs and supports at least 13 committees. “Her guiding principles throughout this pandemic [are] that she is a nurse first and, like any other nurse, we are all in this together and that is how we will fight COVID-19,” her nominator says.

As an emergency room nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, Tiffany Fabick advocated for other staff members when she asked management for more and different types of PPE. Fabick exhibited professionalism when asking questions and discussing the PPE shortage with managers. Her nominator called her a true team player, leader and the heart of the ER.

Nursing students haven’t stopped pursuing their degrees during the coronavirus pandemic. Lisa Fahey, a nursing instructor at UW Health, has provided students with the education and reinforcement they need to navigate nursing during a global pandemic. Fahey has helped guide her medical assistant apprentices while they simultaneously finish their practicums and work in hospital settings as part of UW Health’s COVID-19 response.

So many of the Top Nurses nominations noted that it takes an entire team to be successful, but sometimes it’s a single person who allows that team to succeed. Cory Fink, the ICU nurse manager at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, is one such nurse. He created COVID-19 policy and procedure binders, implemented patients’ use of iPads, facilitated the creation of a rapid COVID-19 orientation for new nurses, evaluated layouts of patient rooms and gathered a team to evaluate best practices.

Courtney Friese, a unit nurse at Sauk County Health Care Center, has put in extra hours and spent time to sit with her elderly patients when family and visitors couldn’t be there.

Geriatric trauma caused by falls has become a leading cause of preventable death and disability for older people. COVID-19 has added another difficult barrier as many live in isolation and fear coming to the hospital and being exposed. Tracie Halvorsen, the trauma performance improvement and injury prevention coordinator at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, partnered with the Safe Communities Falls Prevention Task Force to help get prevention education in the hands of geriatric populations and their families.

When SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison asked volunteer nurses in non-ICU areas to join a new ICU team in preparation for higher numbers of COVID-19 patients, Kandace Harrison immediately stepped forward. Her Top Nurse nominator says she became a huge asset to the ICU team during this period. While Harrison has transitioned back to her home base in the cardiac intermediate care unit, she will still work in the ICU when they need additional help.

When one positive COVID-19 patient transitioned to end-of-life care, Arianna Jamison, a nurse on the medical respiratory unit at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, stayed with him until his final breath. Jamison helped set up FaceTime calls with family members — including the patient’s daughter, who was able to say goodbye and see her father’s face one last time.

Transitioning from hospital to home for end-of-life care is a delicate and stressful process. But Jennifer Johnson, the RN hospital liaison for Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care, has a special gift for difficult and heart-wrenching conversations in coordinating these transitions, writes her nominator. “Also, she does not shy away from having courageous conversations surrounding inequities in care, ensuring that her patients receive the highest quality of care possible,” the nominator writes.

Cindy Kaufman acted as a “source of truth” for all infection-control practices in her role as clinical specialist on the incident command team at SSM Health St. Clare Hospital – Baraboo. The infection preventionist and employee health nurse made herself available 24/7 for months, redesigned workflows and provided expert knowledge on proper PPE use, among many other responses related to COVID-19.

Lona Townsley and Brittany Kersher

Lona Towsley’s with UW Health nurse Britney Kershner

One of the worst moments of Lona Towsley’s life was when she was hospitalized for COVID-19. While fighting the coronavirus, she met UW Health nurse Britney Kershner, who offered hope and resiliency during a time when Towsley could not be surrounded by family and friends. The two created an incredible bond, and Towsley recovered.

In March, lead RN Lisa Kersten had to assume a leadership role to respond to COVID-19 while her supervisor was on vacation. Kersten rolled out workflows and protocols and quickly became the go-to person for her team at UnityPoint Health – Meriter’s Monona Clinic at the very start of the pandemic.

Sleepless nights and constant phone calls are common for nurses, even more so during a pandemic. That’s true for Brenda Klahn, the infection preventionist and employee health nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Janesville, who was on the team that created the protocol that would decide which patients received ventilators. Klahn also volunteered to work in Madison for weeks when they needed an expert infection preventionist. She is described as a “mother,” an “organizer” and a “fierce advocate” by her nominators.

Angela Krey, the evidence-based practice clinical nurse leader at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, has captured stories of resilience in nursing through two projects: My Life My Story and Our Stories: Voices from the VA Front Lines. Her nominator says her work helped decrease nurse anxiety and stress by allowing a safe place for nurses to discuss challenges and fears of unknown outcomes.

Ken Laboski, a nurse on the medical respiratory unit at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, helped reduce infection and decrease exposure throughout the pandemic. In some cases, Laboski even cared for patients when he was not their primary nurse. In one instance, he brought in food for a positive COVID-19 patient who did not have an appetite for the hospital’s food.

Lori Lamasney, who has been a part of the SSM Health St. Clare Hospital – Baraboo team for more than 16 years, has become an incredible asset, her nominator says. Lamasney partnered with the emergency department director to hold daily huddles ensuring everyone stayed informed. She also advocated for her team and patients by making sure there were more safety precautions. “Through her confidence and leadership, the emergency department has, thus far, safely navigated an unanticipated pandemic, and I have no doubt we will continue to do so,” her nominator says.

Throughout the pandemic, Kim Maerz has worked on the Med Flight and ER team at UW Health’s University Hospital. Her nominator says, “While many of us are safe at home, she has continued to work on the front lines, caring for others as usual. She works hard and she deserves to be recognized for all the good she does.”

At Select Specialty Hospital – Madison, Mike Maxwell is described by his nominator as “the godfather to all, the glue and spirit to push [past] the negative emotions, diversity to achieve the goals of every patient and staff member.” He is the night shift charge nurse, and his skill set has kept the night shift running throughout the pandemic.

A nurse’s job often doesn’t stop after they’ve clocked out. One of Ann McCue’s patients nominated her after that patient received exceptional off-duty care from McCue during an emergency that happened at home. On her day off, McCue, an RN at UW Health’s Kidney Clinic, helped the patient’s spouse over the phone and communicated with 911 until the ambulance arrived. “Without her help, my outcome could have been so different!” her patient noted in her nomination.

When news of the pandemic first hit, Attic Angel Community Director of Nursing Lisa McGlynn immediately implemented screenings and closed the doors to visitors and nonessential service providers. Many of the decisions McGlynn made started weeks before state and federal agencies required them. She filled staffing shortages herself, working directly with patients once again.

At SSM Health Outpatient Center, Tom Miles provided outpatient surgery care. One of his patients nominated him for going above and beyond the call of duty. She says Miles kept checking to make sure she was comfortable and kept her updated throughout her time at the outpatient center.

With an “operational mind” and a “nurse’s heart,” Anne Mork became the “go-to” person for all surgical and procedural COVID-19-related issues as the co-leader of UW Health’s novel team responsible for coordinating surgical services under COVID-19 protocol. Mork, the director of UH Surgical Services at UW Health, “greatly [impacted] the care and health of our surgical patients and colleagues whom she works with daily,” her nominators write.

During a crisis in which medical staff need to be deployed where they are most needed, Erinn Mullan, the primary care provider section chief at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, leaped into action to create a staff-loaning plan, new patient schedules and system changes. She also led a team that developed guidelines to proactively reach out to high-risk veterans.

Roberta Page Pawlak, a nursing educator in the Henry Predolin School of Nursing at Edgewood College, has worked to prepare nursing leaders in the community. Her nominator says Page Pawlak prepares her students to respond to rapidly changing health care needs like COVID-19.

Nancy Patrick, clinical nurse specialist for the women’s and children’s community, worked to become an expert on the coronavirus and its impacts on the populations she cares for at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison. Patrick helped designate the antepartum unit as the COVID-19 unit for obstetrics. She also created education binders with up-to-date information and communicated changes to the team.

Vanessa Pierce

Vanessa Pierce

Despite challenges from COVID-19, Vanessa Pierce, an ICU nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, made an effort to connect with her patients. In one instance, Pierce spoke with a patient with severe heart failure about his career as a police officer and his service in the Vietnam War. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled honor flights for veterans, but because of his illness he realized he wouldn’t get to have this experience. Pierce organized a group of people to give him a send-off with American flags and a police escort waiting to accompany him home where he was set to receive hospice care.

Melissa Salaam, the director of nursing at Heartland Hospice of Dane County, created a “droplet team” that avoided contact with others at Heartland so they could visit patients diagnosed with or showing symptoms of COVID-19. The team was created to prevent the entire staff from getting infected with the coronavirus. She also did patient visits herself and arranged for patients to have telehealth visits, some of which included family members so patients could see their families virtually.

When personal protective equipment was in high demand, some hospitals had to figure out how to make their gear last. Kara Sankey, the chief nursing officer of Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville, shared with her team — which included a COVID-19 unit that became one of the busiest in Rock County — methodology for decontaminating N95.

Kristi Schmidt played a crucial role as an infection preventionist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison. She relayed current information and sometimes spent 24 hours a day on call to be there for the incident command center. Her nominator says she acted in one of the most important roles in supporting nurses, especially during a time when knowledge changed by the minute.

Andy Stephani and Matt Byczek

Nurse manager Andy Stephani (right) and assistant nurse manager Matt Byczek

Hundreds of patients have transferred in and out of UnityPoint Health – Meriter’s Department of Emergency Services since the pandemic began. One nominator credited duo nurse manager Andy Stephani (right) and assistant nurse manager Matt Byczek (left) for improving safety of patients, employees and visitors. They continuously communicated changes in practice and policy. The nominator says the duo went “above and beyond” in making sure information got from the front line to the incident command center and everywhere in between.

Cheryl Sullivan, a clinical educator at SSM Health Dean Medical Group, was a key player in creating an employee health playbook that was adopted at the system level to guide safe and quality care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Josh Taylor works with the most agitated patients as a psychiatric nurse on the adult psychiatric unit at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison. His nominator writes, “not only is he talented in building rapport and de-escalating patients, he has been a steadfast leader to his colleagues through the COVID-19 crisis.”

Many medical teams were tasked with creating negative air pressure rooms for positive COVID-19 patients. Jessica Trumpy, charge nurse and nursing professional governance unit based council chair at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, led the merger of two large medical and surgical departments to allow for one nursing unit to be vacated. The photo above is one Trumpy texted the department director to show the new team and how the two came together.

SSM Health Dean Medical Group RN Jodie Van Kirk’s nominator is a patient whose rare and aggressive form of cancer returned two weeks after he buried his son. Van Kirk became his “advocate to live.” “Jodie is not my nurse anymore in my eyes, she is my family,” the nominator writes. “I never can ever repay her for giving me the courage to deal with my medical problems and the will to fight on.”

Margaret Wallace paused her new job at UW Health for three months and joined the COVID-19 team that shared results with patients daily. Her nominator says this was “some of the most impactful work to reduce the spread of the disease.” She worked behind the scenes and cared for patients over the phone by relaying test results and educating patients on next steps. “Her work saved lives, and it is this type of work in nursing that goes unnoticed yet has profound impact,” her nominator says.

While many departments closed, Kimberly Wanless, the charge nurse at Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center, continued providing cancer care despite COVID-19. She led the team in screening patients, minimizing patient exposure and educating patients on cancer issues during the pandemic. Her nominator says, “Kim’s demeanor has remained positive and empathetic despite the drastic changes these times have given cancer care. She is willing to take time with each patient and treat them with the utmost respect.”

As the nurse manager at UnityPoint Health – Meriter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry program, Howard Wiese made it his mission to continue to provide individualized, safe and therapeutic care to children and adolescent patients. After working tirelessly to determine new protocols, he made that happen, his nominator says. “He continues to go above and beyond to identify ways to continue to engage our patients,” the nominator writes.

Jennifer Yost, charge RN of SSM Health St. Clare Hospital – Baraboo’s surgical unit, led by example even after taking on new roles during the COVID-19 response. Her nominators say her encouraging cartoon drawings and sidewalk chalk messages helped lift spirits and had a ripple effect of positivity.

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