Top Nurses 2020: Nathan Bubenzer led throughout a crisis

Nathan Bubenzer of UnityPoint Health - Meriter received the leadership award.
Nathan Bubenzer
Photo by Timothy Hughes

Ideally, the person you want in an emergency preparedness safety manager position in a hospital system during a deadly pandemic is someone with ICU experience, who is an expert in infection prevention, who understands disease prevention and control, who has a deep knowledge of public health and who knows how to communicate effectively. Nathan Bubenzer checks every single box. He has seven years of ICU nursing experience, spent two and a half years as an infection preventionist, has a master’s degree in public health and was in the publishing industry in his first career.

“In a true sense, Nathan has been expertly prepared as a leader to provide guidance and support safe hospital operations during our response to COVID-19,” says Bradley Armstrong, Meriter’s director of safety and security and Bubenzer’s direct supervisor. Bubenzer knows what it’s like to respond to a public health crisis on the ground floor. Leah Huibregtse first met Bubenzer during the Ebola crisis in 2015. Bubenzer was a Meriter ICU nurse at the time, and Huibregtse remembers when he volunteered to care for a patient in isolation who was suspected of having Ebola but ultimately tested negative.

“I remember being impressed with how willing he was to take on the challenge, even with the known risk,” says Huibregtse, Meriter’s manager of strategic communications.

His job looks very different now, but the vital information Bubenzer shares and emergency plans and training he puts in place are helping save lives. “Thanks to Nathan’s expertise and leadership, Meriter has successfully discharged more than [200] COVID-19-positive patients from the hospital,” Huibregtse says.

In normal times, Bubenzer would be conducting training and perfecting plans for incidents including infant abductions (Meriter is one of the state’s busiest birthing centers), tornados, active shooters, technology failures, flooding and workplace violence, among many other things. He is also an active participant in Meriter’s Adopt-a-School program in which he held talks and demonstrations for James Madison Memorial High School students.

But COVID-19 turned Bubenzer’s day-to-day into full pandemic response mode — during a crisis that was longer than any the hospital has experienced. “Most of the emergencies we deal with are a day long. Two days. A long response is a week under most circumstances,” Bubenzer says. “Well, we’ve now been working under emergency operations plans basically since February. So we’ve gone from a week to months and months of people having to wear masks and face shields all the time. … There’s a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety that goes on.”

He’s responsible for setting up Meriter’s incident command center, which is a formal decision-making team that hospitals activate during a crisis. Bubenzer has been sharing more than 100 data points daily, partnering closely with internal teams, external partners, government agencies and hospital consortiums.

“We pulled our first incident command center together on Feb. 5,” says Bubenzer, who also at that time began revising the pandemic respiratory illness plan, which is one of 25 to 30 specific response plans the hospital has on file. “So we were working on our process early on. A lot of hospitals were. They could see it coming. That’s part of the job — predicting what’s the next big thing.”

Bubenzer considers himself the “behind-the-scenes guy” who’s giving the right information to the right people at the right time, but he has emerged as a leader in every sense of the word, say his four Top Nurses nominators.

“Nathan’s deep knowledge, ability to coordinate teams and outstanding interpersonal skills make him phenomenal at what he does. Nathan has been a rock for us during his time with Meriter, and during this pandemic, there’s no one else I’d rather have at the emergency preparedness helm,” says Jessika Kasten, regional director of marketing and community relations at Meriter. “He is able to calmly help steer the ship, share important expertise, feedback and opinions, all while remembering the importance of laughter and collegiality.”

As the person who’s always thinking about the worst-case scenario, Bubenzer has a surprising reputation for bringing smiles to people’s faces. “What I have enjoyed so much about Nathan is his sense of fun in an environment that is serious,” says Mary Forrestal Jones, Meriter’s human resources director, who was one of his nominators. “He does it naturally and with respect to what is going on, but [with] the understanding of how important humor is at this time.”

How does he make his colleagues laugh? If it’s not his deadpan delivery of jokes, news and weather ahead of a daily morning “safety huddle” meeting, it might be his team of crisis training helpers, which includes a disaster chicken and troll as well as a trio of skeletons (all named Burt) that randomly pop up throughout the hospital. “I’m known for doing the odd thing every so often,” he says. “But occasionally when something happens and I didn’t do it, I still get blamed for it.”

As he describes it, “I take my job very seriously, but I don’t always take myself seriously.”

Evidence of his hard work can be seen in his invitations to participate on the state’s Vaccine Administration work group as well as UnityPoint Health systems’ vaccine preparation working group. He’s involved in developing vaccine distribution plans.

“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time with the job that I have,” he says. “I can take advantage of all the experience I have as an ICU nurse and an infection preventionist, and even as a marketing director at a publishing house, and put it all together.”

Maybe things will come full circle for Bubenzer and he’ll write a book about his experience. “Who knows?” he says.

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