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Wilma Rohweder was just seventeen years old when polio struck. Her dream was to become a nurse, but when she fell ill, her mother began to worry.
"She tried to talk me out of it," Rohweder recalls. "I wouldn't listen to her."
Two years later, she packed her bags and moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where she literally earned her stripes—one for each of her three years in nursing school. At graduation, each woman—no men in the field yet—received a beret with a wide black stripe to signify her status as a registered nurse. Today one of Rohweder's caps is on display in the UW–Madison School of Nursing.
It was the beginning of World War II, and a shortage of wartime nurses led to the creation of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. For fifteen dollars a month, the eager and precocious Rohweder signed on as a cadet. Rightly so, she is extremely proud of her honorable service to the profession—sixty-four years and counting.
Rohweder has spent the majority of her career in ophthalmology. However, when her husband of sixty-two years, Dwayne, was starting out, his jobs with the county extension office took him all over the state of Iowa, so Rohweder accepted whatever nursing positions were available. The couple moved a dozen times in the first few years of their marriage, but wherever they landed, Rohweder always found work. The hospital urology department, a school nurse, an operating room supervisor—whatever it was, she loved every minute of it.
"I never missed a day in nursing," she says. And that includes a two-and-a-half-year stint in Brazil in the late 1960s, where her husband, who had since earned a Ph.D. in agronomy and moved the family to Madison, was sent to develop a graduate program. There she worked as a consulate nurse, helping procure safe, sterilized needles and administering gamma globulin shots to boost immunity to diseases that today are prevented with vaccines.
Her specialized skills and training in diseases and disorders of the eye made her a perfect fit for her current work as a volunteer for Dean Foundation's BSP Free Clinic for under- and uninsured patients seeking specialty health care. She assisted the clinic in the planning and launching of its ophthalmology services, and colleagues say her help is critical on days when volunteer doctors see patients with glaucoma, macular degeneration and other eye-related disorders.
"She does the best charting ever," says BSP office manager Kathy Williams. "We love Wilma and hope she continues to provide TLC and share her knowledge with all of us at BSP for many more years."
It's difficult to write about Peggy Weber's impact on patients, survivors and their families without drawing on symbolism and cliché. But it's just so easy—and honestly, so fitting—to describe her as "an angel from heaven," "a pillar of faith," "the Mother Theresa of Madison," or, in the kind words of someone whom Peggy has supported through several family tragedies, "the pot of gold at the end of everyone's rainbow." When life is a struggle, or when the worst happens and it's time to say goodbye to our loved ones, cliché is comforting—and it's a simple, beautiful way to articulate Weber's deeply genuine commitment to everyone she cares for.
And if a record twenty-three nominations for "Madison's Favorite Nurse" doesn't reflect the depth and breadth of her work, a walk through St. Mary's Hospital, where Weber was educated and where she has spent most of her forty-one-year career, or a visit to Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's in Cottage Grove certainly does.
Weber jokes about it but it's true—after it began to take too long to make her way out of church every week, her husband switched from waiting patiently in the car to bringing along the Sunday paper to giving up and taking a separate vehicle. But Peggy doesn't mind; it's simply the nature of her work. "Nursing is such an art and science," she says. "It's the art of relationships," adding, "Most nurses—we're wired to do this."
That ability to communicate, to connect with people during their most difficult and painful times, is a strength that she has nurtured and grown into a remarkable outreach arm for St. Mary's, including an ongoing support program called Kids Can Cope that she founded in 1985, the Parish Nurse program started in 1997 and the cancer survivors group she facilitates once a month at St. Patrick's. "Sometimes I walk into work and I don't know what's happening," Peggy says of her job as a Parish Nurse and Parish Nurse Program coordinator. "I immediately have to relate to [patients and families] and build their trust." It's that trust, she says, that helps us work through the frightening experience of death and dying. "The more they can replace that fear with trust, the more calm they'll be."
For Peggy, that trust she builds with people extends beyond the walls of hospital and church—and for as long as God intends.
"I go to almost every wake and funeral I can because it helps me and it helps them. I don't abandon people. They can find me," she says, with a steely look in her eyes that tells me she means it absolutely and without condition. "They can find me."
For all of this strength, knowledge, warmth and compassion, Peggy very humbly credits the Sisters of St. Mary, thirty years of experience in the field of psychiatry and two very special nurse mentors, Carol Viviani and Barbara Komoroske, among others. For her faith and spirituality, she thanks her German Lutheran father and Roman Catholic mother.
"I grew up with an incredible spirit in my home," she says.
Today, Peggy's incredible spirit is evident in her own home where she, along with her husband Jim, is blessed with four children and soon-to-be eleven grandchildren.
"So what's next?" I ask her.
"What else?" she answers back. "When you love what you do and it's the most favorite thing you do, why would you want to quit?"
Mary Saur was a bright young college student at UW–Oshkosh with a keen interest in science. But it was the late 1960s, and her career options were limited. "At that time it was nursing or teaching," she says.
Nursing won out in part because she had a role model in the field: her aunt, an idol and mentor. Saur eventually transferred to UW–Madison, earned her RN license, married and moved to Milwaukee. A year and a half later she made her way back to Madison, and settled in to start a family. At the time—1974—the natural childbirth movement was sweeping across the country. Preparing for their first child, Saur and her husband, Ed, decided to enroll in a Lamaze class.
"It was something for us that was truly a bonding, growth experience," she says.
On the professional side, the class got Saur thinking about a nursing career in labor and delivery. Over the next few years she'd have two more children and teach Lamaze classes. In 1984, she returned to full-time nursing. When Madison General and Methodist hospitals merged in 1987 to become Meriter Hospital, Saur helped develop the childbirth classes and continued to teach until the late 1990s. Over the course of her career, she figures she's taught some two thousand couples.
Saur, a staff nurse, is frequently assigned to Meriter Birthing Center's triage unit, where labor patients are screened and evaluated. And while the one thing that's certain about her job is uncertainty, "My hope for the day is that I'll have a birth with somebody," she says.
It's in this role as support and advocate for mom and her loved ones that Saur thrives. "Communication is key to meeting one's needs, and being at the bedside with them the nurse can often be that conduit," she says.
"I remember one time a woman wanting to stand to have her baby. This is no big deal now, but it was out of the norm then and the doctor came in and said, ‘Mary, she needs to lie back.' Well it was not going to happen—this woman was where she wanted to be so we did end up delivering the baby with her standing above us in the birthing bed."
Saur feels richly rewarded by her career and is thankful for the "fantastic nurses" she works with as well as the many families who've given her the opportunity to share in their most intimate and special moments.
"I love to see my ‘babies' whether they are two weeks old or in their twenties and thirties and to hear how their lives are," says Saur. "How lucky can I get?"
Sometimes our parents' love of what they do for a living influences our own career paths. For Shelley Bazala, it was a more serendipitous route.
"My mom was a nurse," says Bazala. "So I discounted it."
She decided she was more interested in social work and pharmacy. But somewhere along the way, the light bulb turned on.
"It hit me that nursing combined both of them."
Three kids, seven grandkids and more than thirty-five years later, Bazala has enjoyed a successful and fulfilling career in behavioral health as a nurse providing direct patient care and now as a nurse supervisor for Meriter Hospital's alcohol and drug treatment program, NewStart.
Not only is she a skilled RN, her colleagues say she brings out the best in everyone, she's an invaluable advocate for patients and families, and in general, "You feel better when Shelley is around."
Bazala is equally effusive about her co-workers. "I am blessed with a wonderful, competent staff," she says. "We help people be accepting of where they're at, offer them hope."
In a field where the illness has the added disadvantage of societal stigma, Bazala's calm leadership style, particularly when a patient is in crisis, and her compassion for the person behind the addiction is a winning combination.
"Systems can be overwhelming. Access to services can be challenging," she says. And to top it all off, "They're being judged."
"Lack of understanding and knowledge among health care providers themselves about substance use and addiction can be a barrier for the person in need of help," Bazala says. "Attitudes, in both health care and society at large, compound the embarrassment/guilt/shame/anger that may be present for the person in need of help."
Her daunting task? "We try to educate and support the health care provider as well as meet the patient's needs and intervene in a timely manner." In today's world, that means treating the whole patient and acknowledging the physical as well as the environmental issues surrounding addiction.
"Seeing how someone regains their life is a true ‘high,'" she says.
Zach Southard easily recalls the man whose grateful parents wrote a letter nominating him to be one of "Madison's Favorite Nurses." "This is about as young a patient as we'd ever see," he says.
Southard also remembers the moment a year ago when the father of his twenty-year-old patient, who'd just returned from surgery to repair a congenital hole in his heart, had to step out of the room. Hot and lightheaded, he was overcome by the shock of seeing his own son so weak and tethered to countless tubes and machines.
"No matter how much you explain to them about what they're going to see, it looks like mass chaos," says Southard, a nurse clinician on the cardiac and thoracic surgery, heart and lung transplant team at UW Hospital and Clinics. "But from our standpoint it's pretty organized."
Southard enjoys breaking down the health of the patients and the care they're receiving into bite-size pieces that people can digest, particularly at a frenetic time when emotions are high.
"I like the high-acuity, high-intensity stuff," he says.
And he may come by it naturally. The UW–Madison grad's father is a nurse on a post-anesthesia recovery unit in Appleton, and his younger brother, Sam, also a UW alum, followed in Southard's footsteps—exactly. He works at the same hospital. On the same heart and vascular team.
Calm and competent, Southard says the job, which he landed right after graduation, comes with a steep learning curve.
"You don't learn to be a nurse in nursing school," he says. "Over time you learn far more than you ever could've imagined."
To that end, he describes the mentoring and training on his unit as top-notch, and his colleagues as "the best part of this job." He serves on his unit's advisory council, which reviews cases, helps manage organization and protocol, and teases out best practices.
Best practices, for instance, like knowing that no two cases are ever alike.
"You learn very quickly that you can't treat numbers," says Southard. "You treat patients."
Late last year, bacterial meningitis followed by a heart attack landed Laurie Gomoll-Koch in the hospital for six weeks. Not only did Alyssa Hanekamp provide expert medical care, she went above and beyond for her patient's husband and two sons, including regular private updates to her youngest, who attended college four hours away.
"She is more than a nurse," writes Gomoll-Koch in her nomination letter for "Madison's Favorite Nurses." "She was our lifeline."
So it's no surprise that this facet of nursing—compassionate care for both patient and family—is what drew Hanekamp to the field. She always wanted to be a doctor, but a passion for singing led her to a music major in college. On her mother's advice to have a back-up plan, she enrolled in nursing courses at Blackhawk Technical College. During the course of her clinical work, she fell in love with bedside care.
"It's the best part of my job," she says.
Working at the St. Mary's medical ICU unit for the last six years, Hanekamp says she's never once regretted her decision to forego medical school—or singing—for a career in nursing.
"We work very closely with the doctors in intensive care and they allow us to use the knowledge that we have," she says.
She also doesn't feel like she's missing out on family thanks to a schedule—common in her field—that allows for multiple days off at a time and an incredible support network of friends and family. Hanekamp is married with three young children and for now the lifestyle works. As it turns out, the intensive care environment suits her, too. "It's your direct action that gets people through the good or the bad," she says.
Inevitably, though, there will be those shifts that take their physical and emotional tolls, which is why she relishes the hour-long commute.
"Some days you just cry all the way home from work," Hanekamp says. On both good days and bad, she is thankful for "the best co-workers you could ask for," and for the opportunity to "change people's lives."
Says Hanekamp: "It's the ones that we save, who get to walk out the door, that keep you coming back every day."
Alyce Columbia's busy life and career have taken her across the state and the country, and the nursing positions she's held in the field have been equally diverse. From independent and assisted living environments to caring for people with AIDS to her current work in intensive care, she's pretty much seen it all.
"I like the patient population. I like to work with people," says Columbia, a nurse care team leader for cardiac and thoracic surgery, and heart and lung transplant at UW Hospital and Clinics.
For the last seven years Columbia has worked with very sick people in "a very fast-paced place," she says, where in any given week she and her team of sixty nurses might see multiple heart surgeries and one, two or even three sets of lung transplants. "The doctors, they're all incredible," she adds. "The things that happen here are phenomenal." Columbia holds the nursing staff she leads and trains in the same high regard. "The caliber of the individuals who work there—amazing."
The unit also equips patients with ventricular assisted devices/heart pumps while they await life-saving transplants. Columbia remembers one patient in particular, an eighteen-year-old teenager being treated for cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle that can be fatal. "It's the one that pulled my heartstrings," she says. The man, young and poor, was in and out of the hospital, one scary episode after another. Eventually he was put on the VAD, waiting for an organ donation.
"It was his bridge to transplant," says Columbia, recalling a hospitalization episode when she thought the man might die. Fortunately, his mother and younger sister were able to be there with him, but it was an evening shift, and the nights can be long and difficult when a patient is gravely ill. To ease the tension, Columbia brought in movies and popped popcorn. "We had a slumber party," she says. Eventually, the patient received a heart transplant and went home to live his life. For Columbia, it makes her high-intensity, sixty-hour workweek worthwhile.
"When they come back after a period of time and they don't look anything like they did when they came in, and you participated in that—that's the reward.
Jodi Casper was just ten years old when an automobile accident sent her to the hospital for three weeks. She had a fractured femur, so her injured leg was suspended with all sorts of wires and weights. She spent six weeks inside a body cast and became way too familiar with reclining wheelchairs and walkers. Throughout the ordeal, the fifth grader had extra time on her hands to observe her surroundings—plus rack up plenty of interactions with the hospital staff.
"I came to appreciate what it meant to be a nurse," says Casper. Afterward, she pretty much decided that was exactly what she wanted to do someday. "I never deviated from that—ever."
Thanks to that chapter in her life, Casper also developed a strong empathy for patients and their health care experiences. When it came time to decide on a nursing specialty, she knew it would be one with an emphasis on bedside care. That, coupled with a fascination for "the miracle of birth," as she puts it, eventually led her to labor and delivery.
She's been a St. Mary's Family Birth Center nurse since 2004, and her varied duties on a twelve-hour shift include labor and delivery support, postpartum and nursery care, and rotations through triage, which is equipped to handle a significant level of high-risk care.
"Our senses fluctuate like an ER," Casper says. And as in an emergency room, no day is typical. "We really are on our toes."
Casper's smile widens when she talks about the women and families she's cared for—and is quick to point out that each birth involves not one patient but two—both mother and baby (or babies, as is sometimes the case).
"I've always loved newborns," she says. "To visualize that baby inside and the journey it went through—it's just so surreal."
Casper says the changes in technology—like 3-D ultrasounds and the hospital's electronic records system—learning curves aside—have been mostly positive.
"I feel like I can focus more on the patient," she says.
And, she says, her department benefits greatly from a diverse nursing staff that includes a wide range of ages and experience.
"We learn from older nurses the techniques to support the patient; younger nurses help with technology," she says. "I love the people I work with."
Patricia Peltier is a people person. She thrives on the positive, meaningful connections she makes with others. For the patients and residents she cares for as an LPN at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, her brand of care is often a blessing.
There's the elderly man, an artist in his eighties, who lost his voice to cancer. His paintings hang on the walls around him, but before Peltier visits, he moves them around—a welcoming change of scenery for them both. Excited about the upcoming football season, the man was delighted when "Nurse Patti," as she's known to all, brought him a Packers hat and jersey.
"The little things," Peltier says. "That's what I like."
But Peltier is being modest. In her twenty-three years in nursing, she's seen and done a lot, and now she hopes to pursue an RN license, and perhaps teach someday, because she still has more to give. And as the saying goes, you get what you give. Fifteen years ago, Peltier was driving to work when she saw a car accident and arrived first on the scene. The car was totaled and the victim had suffered a severe head injury. She knew he didn't have much time left, but she did everything she could to stabilize him while waiting for the paramedics. The man died at the hospital, but not before he was able to fulfill his final wish to donate his organs. The Red Cross later honored Peltier with a Good Samaritan Award, which she appreciates, but she insists she was only doing her job.
"I just did what I would want somebody to do for me in this situation," she says.
For the last year and a half at Capitol Lakes, Peltier has been working with patients and residents in independent and assisted living environments, and in short- and long-term rehabilitation. In that role, she cares for people whose illnesses are progressing, as well as those on the road to recovery. No matter what situation she finds herself dealing with from day to day, Peltier loves providing the comfort and care each person needs and deserves. And she always does it with a dose of the very best medicine.
"Make them laugh," she says. "Humor is the best thing."
How We Did It
Last summer, Madison Magazine and WISC-TV3 asked the community to help us find and recognize practicing nurses in all areas of health care who go above and beyond the call of duty. The response was immediate and overwhelming: more than 150 e-mails, letters and phone calls from employers, peers, patients, friends and family who felt compelled to share their stories and experiences with the nursing community.
Editor Brennan Nardi and news anchor Charlotte Deleste pored over every nomination, then chose nine winners based on a variety of editorial critera, including nursing specialty (we were looking for a nice mixture of health care environments in which our nurses practiced), professional experience (from those just starting out in the field to accomplished veterans) and quality of the nominations (a compelling story or anecdote always helps).
To be chosen for this honor, winners must have been trained in a formal nursing program and all were vetted by the state Department of Regulation & Licensing.
Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.