Stephanie Thummel-Schwindt has always been a great nurse, said her supervisor, Rochelle Clower. She gives good care, her patients want for nothing.

But the thing that makes Thummel-Schwindt the nurse of the year — or the century, maybe — is her leadership.

“She really takes new nurses under her wing, helps them out,” Clower said. “She’s always calm, cool, collected, no matter what’s going on in the unit, and she always is a cheerleader. And if it gets to the point where she thinks ‘OK, this is a little too much,” then she has no problem picking up the phone and saying ‘We need help,’ or advocating for her staff and patients, as well. That’s what makes her great.”

Clower, director of acute care nursing and hospice, is clearly not alone in her thinking. This week, Thummel-Schwindt was voted winner of the hospital’s 2019 Clinical Excellence in Nursing Award, earning the honor out of 44 nominees from St. Catherine Hospital, Siena Medical Clinic, the Women’s Clinic, Plaza Medical Center and the Convenient Care Clinic.

Thummel-Schwindt was given a plaque, a monetary gift and, like dozens of honorees before her, a nursing cape embroidered with her name. She, Elda Menjivar from the intensive care unit and Emma Merrill from hospice were all finalists for the award, voted in by their peers.

When Thummel-Schwindt hit a wall of uncertainty in college, staring down difficult classes that blocked her original plan to be a doctor, her mom encouraged her to keep going.

“You know you’re supposed to be a nurse,” she told her daughter.

Thummel-Schwindt, a native Garden Citian, had volunteered at Garden Valley Retirement Village when she was a kid and connected with the residents instantly. It was “like having a whole building full of grandmas and grandpas,” she said, and she just wanted to make them happy. Helping and caring for others came naturally.

The to-be nurse took her mom’s advice. Today, she said it was the best decision she ever made.

Thummel-Schwindt has been a nurse for nine years, three of them at St. Catherine Hospital as a medical/surgical floor nurse and charge nurse. But, before that, she bounced around the country for years as a traveling nurse, stopping in towns for several months at a time to fill hospitals’ staffing shortages.

She went to a large, bustling hospital in Wyoming, and another in Zephyrhills, Fla., a town that essentially shut down in the summer months when the vacation home crowd migrated north. Once she came to Atwood to be closer to her family and to-be husband.

Each place came with its own operations and policies, supplies and office culture.

Sometimes “our worlds gets pretty small,” she said, and it was healthy to get a taste of different perspectives and stay flexible.

Thummel-Schwindt’s favorite part of the job, wherever she is, is the patients. She likes to care for them and connect with them. You never forget the sadder or scarier times, she said — the first crisis or death — but the warmer moments stand out on their own.

She remembers cancer patients’ persevering, positive outlook on life at an oncology center in Hays. Another man in Florida panicked as a condition momentarily made it difficult for him to breathe, and she sat with him, calming him as the moment and anxiety passed. They sat on the bed breathing together, she said.

At St. Catherine, Thummel-Schwindt’s care for her patients is apparent. In a hectic, breakneck environment, she always takes time to really listen to those under her care and their loved ones. It’s a compassion and efficiency balancing act that takes skill and practice, and it makes her a better nurse, Clower said.

“She truly cares about each person, you can tell just by how she interacts with them,” Clower said.

You have to look at patients like they’re family members, Thummel-Schwindt said. Their past, their baggage, their mistakes don’t matter.

“The only thing that matters is what they’re here for and helping them through that … ” Thummel-Schwindt said. “You have to be willing to get in there and do what you need to do.”

About three months ago, Thummel-Schwindt was promoted to house administrative coordinator. When the directors and executive team are gone, she’s in charge, Clower said. She oversees the entire hospital at night.

Thummel-Schwindt is calm in any critical situation, and she always makes good, thoughtful, wise decisions, Clower said.

“She’s just got it,” Clower said.

As a leader, Thummel-Schwindt said she hopes she imparts the importance of putting patients first and that anyone, especially new nurses, always feel like they can approach her and ask her questions.

The lessons from her current and past co-workers still stick with her, from practical skills to mantras like she learned at the oncology center in Hays: life is short, and you need to enjoy what you can and help people through what you can.

“I learn something every day from my co-workers. You have to,” Thummel-Schwindt said. “I am the nurse I am because of the people I’ve worked with.”


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