Karen Larson’s job as nurse manager at UnityPoint–Meriter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Hospital fulfills her commitment to helping children—her true passion.

She works at the only inpatient facility for mentally ill youth in Dane County and leads a staff of 70 who treat children ages 6 to 18 who may be dealing with depression, suicidality, gender identity or history of trauma, among other mental health diagnoses.

“I’ve worked with children all my [adult working] life. I did a midlife career change because I wanted to work with them in a different capacity,” says Larson, who was an in-home child care provider for 20 years and worked for an agency contracted by the city of Madison to accredit in-home day care providers. “I wanted to work with high-needs kids. While I never thought I’d enter psychiatry, this is where I’ve stayed. This is my home.”

In Larson’s 15 years at the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Hospital starting as a staff RN—moving into the assistant nurse manager role and six years ago becoming the nurse manager—she has become the cog that the staff operates around. “She comes in every day and supports us in a really maternal way,” says Katie Schmitt, medical director of the hospital. “She inspires us to continue to do our jobs every day, which is really hard. It takes a special person to do that.”

But it’s not just Larson’s daily presence that has defined her nursing career. During the time she has worked at the hospital, the admissions have increased almost threefold while length of stay has decreased by 50 percent. This led to a significant change in turnover of patients and an increase in workflow for staff. Larson has worked to help change the processes and unit culture to meet these increased demands for care. The hospital has gone from treating 350 patients in 2002 to 600 patients in 2010, now to 850 patients annually.

It was a big change, as the length of stay for patients went from 10 to 12 days to five to six days. “We’ve adjusted, and I think it has become very clear that the need is there in the community and that’s what we’re here for—we’re here to serve the community,” says Larson.

Meanwhile, Larson also helped shift staff scheduling to mirror the school system model, which allows some employees to work increased hours during the predictably busy months and have reduced hours or be off completely during their slower summer months. This has served to meet the staffing needs when they are very busy, satisfies the staff and supports financial viability.

Larson also has played a lead role in changes that have improved patient care, including the addition of a sensory calming room that, in addition to other therapies, has contributed to a decrease in patient seclusions and restraints over the last several years by almost 90 percent. She also helped bring a healing garden and horticultural therapy area to the hospital grounds.

But in all of Larson’s work, it’s still the direct care with children that gives her the most satisfaction. That’s why it’s been so hard to say goodbye for Larson, 66, who was set to retire earlier this year. A replacement has been hard to come by. Larson is still working at the hospital. “It’s hard to find someone that has that leadership, that knowledge, the focus on patient-centered care … and then just that compassion,” Schmitt says.