At Kaiser Permanente, our nurses have stayed strong and grounded through a multi-year global pandemic and continued to uphold their professional practice of compassion, excellence, integrity, teamwork, and patient- and family-centered care. Their inner strength and the collective strength of the integrated care team that surrounds them have combined to help carry our organization through a time of adversity and challenge. Our nurse leaders have cultivated an environment of trust and open communication that empowers their teams to do their best work.
We called on some of our nurses across the nation to tell us how they worked through the COVID-19 pandemic and how they find strength in themselves and from their teams. A few of our nurse leaders told us how they enabled their teams to continue delivering high-quality compassionate care during tremendous challenges.
Eric Cathey, RN, is the charge nurse in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Oregon. Cathey cared for the state’s first patient with COVID-19, the second patient in the nation to be infected with the virus. Cathey remembers seeing a young patient very sick with symptoms the care team couldn’t immediately diagnose. Soon more patients arrived. The patients were so sick that each nurse was assigned to spend 4 hours at a time with just one patient, without any breaks. The situation “went from 0 to 60 very quickly. It was a surreal and scary feeling.”
From several places. My father instilled in me the importance of having a good attitude, so I’ve made it a habit to show up every day with a good attitude. My wife is also a nurse, and it was so nice to be able to come home and talk through the pain. I also stay spiritually connected to remember that there is something bigger and better than me.
A lot of people from all over the facility — my manager, engineering, and administration — got together to change our spaces and develop new processes to keep us safe. Leaders visited our unit to make sure we were well supported. We got the supplies we needed and there was so much teamwork. It was amazing.
Kevin A. Mempin, RN, is the lead nurse in orthopedics and podiatry at Gaithersburg Medical Center in Maryland. Mempin was assigned to urgent care during the initial stages of the pandemic. He saw patients with COVID-19 daily at a time when scientists knew very little about the disease. The entire staff was learning on the job, and no one knew how COVID-19 might affect a person. Contact with patients and entry into patient rooms had to be minimized.
My father was a nurse. He passed away 12 years ago, but I still draw my strength from him. I grew up seeing how he was always willing to give of himself. He was the most generous person and put everyone in front of himself. I carry that with me. I always know I am there to do what’s best for my patients. It was so difficult because these patients were really suffering. It still haunts me.
I wouldn’t have made it without the care team around me. I was in a new and unfamiliar environment when COVID-19 first appeared. The clinicians I worked with were always willing to answer any question I had, whether it was where to find a piece of equipment or how to navigate a new process.
None of us knew what was going to happen the next day, or the next hour, but we all committed to working together to get through the pandemic.
Emily McGarvey, RN, professional practice consultant for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, led the effort to train and organize 9 child-friendly COVID-19 vaccination clinics for ages 5 to 11 in November 2021. These became the first clinics for this age group in the state of Colorado. McGarvey addressed needle anxiety and pain by incorporating Buzzy, a bee-shaped device with ice packs for wings. As the children focus on the cold Buzzy, they forget the pain and sensation of the shot.
My children, and children in general. The children who came to the clinics were so excited to get the shot and to do their part to help us get through the COVID-19 pandemic. In that setting, with those kids and families, it felt like being part of something bigger and special. It made it all worth it.
My team completely showed up for me and took care of me. There was no hesitation. There was no ‘that’s not my job, that’s not enough time.’ It was like, ‘where do I go, and where do you need me to be?’ Even my chief nurse executive showed up in scrubs. There was no hierarchy. We are all nurses. It was all hands on deck. Our leaders made sure we were flexing down hours during the week when we could. If I couldn’t be at one vaccine clinic, a colleague of mine would volunteer to go for me. I felt very supported.
Honesto Lucero, RN, is assistant manager in the Medical Telemetry Unit at Kaiser Permanente Antioch Medical Center in Northern California. Lucero and his unit worked at the bedside caring for patients who were critically ill with COVID-19.
I draw my strength and my drive from my wife and children, who support me in everything I do. The people I work with inspire me. Seeing our staff come back to work every day to take care of our patients with COVID-19 made me feel fortunate, and humbled.
We make a point of lifting each other up during our morning huddles. Sunday is Sunday Funday, and we play games or even sing and dance. Sometimes we look to the person on our right and say 1 or 2 good things about them. We also check in with our staff regularly, actively listen to their concerns, and sometimes allow them to just vent.
Everyone at the Antioch Medical Center — doctors, engineers, housekeeping — supports each other in every way they can. We also have unit meetings, where staff can voice whatever they are feeling that day. In our meetings, we got to express our frustrations, fears, and personal struggles. We also made sure we got ample rest, even switching schedules if need be, so we could all be at our best.
Betty Harrill, RN, manages 8 nurses at Lynnwood Medical Center in Washington. At the beginning of the pandemic, Harrill volunteered at 2 temporary clinics set up to serve a population of patients who had COVID-19 and no stable housing.
I think a lot of it is mentally switching chairs and asking what would make me feel respected and cared about. I think a manager’s purpose is largely about making good judgments. We help our teams feel empowered to do the right thing.
Speaking up is an act of courage. Regardless of what someone shares, I try to express respect and appreciation for their choice to speak up, and I find a way to integrate the idea or comment into what we’re working on. When things aren’t working well, our team creates a safe place to talk during our daily huddles. I also surround myself with people who disagree with me. I go to them first and let them tell me all the reasons why something won’t work. Then, I go to the drawing board and solve for that.
John Masongsong, RN, is director of hospital operations for the Fontana Medical Center in Southern California, where his department serves 1,100 nurses in specialties ranging from Adult Services to Maternal Child Health. Masongsong handled all the logistics — the space, the staff, and the equipment — and the evolving information related to expanding hospital bed capacity to cope with several surges of COVID-19.
Leading with empathy relates to relationship-based care, which encompasses 3 things: relationships with our patients, relationships with our co-workers, and relationships with ourselves. Nurses are good at connecting and listening to their patients and co-workers. It’s the relationship to self that nurses need to improve upon. Too often, nurses care for their patients and co-workers and then go home and take care of their families. They don’t take care of themselves. That leaves them with nothing left to give and leads to burnout. We need to find time to take care of ourselves so that we can lead others with empathy.
I give everyone the opportunity to have a safe space to voice their ideas. Some people are not going to speak up in a meeting. Knowing that, I create other ways for them to speak up, whether it’s small groups, one-on-one meetings, or other methods of communication. The onus is on us as leaders to create safe spaces.
Kim Fowler, RN, is health services manager at Kaiser Permanente TownPark Comprehensive Medical Center in Georgia. For the last 2 years Fowler and her team of 15 nurses have been testing and treating patients with COVID-19 symptoms, alongside their typical population of elderly patients with chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
I try to walk alongside them so I can truly see and feel what they are experiencing. I believe in leading by example. I don’t want to ask anyone to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself.
It’s a matter of being there with them and talking with them every day. Sometimes the silent voices are really speaking the loudest. It’s my job to take care of my team just as much as it’s their job to care for our patients.