CAREERS IN NURSING
WHERE THE HEART IS: DON BRINGS LOVE OF SMALL COMMUNITIES
by Traci Chapman – staff writer/photographer
Patricia Wehling knows first-hand the challenges facing rural hospitals – trials that have meant staff cutbacks at some, even closure of others.
But, the veteran nurse also knows that does not have to be the case – and, she’s helped make sure it wasn’t for some of Mercy’s rural hospitals, in the process becoming an integral part of that healthcare organization’s administrative team.
“Even though I have been in administrative positions where I was accountable for 100 to 200 department employees, I find that I identify with the smaller, rural hospitals,” Wehling said. “The smaller communities have very different and challenging needs than the urban areas – and, the people are so strong due to the struggles they have endured to keep their communities and hospitals viable.”
Wehling’s background made it easy for her to relate with those smaller communities and their health needs, she said. Raised on a family farm and graduating from high school as part of a 17-member class, she knew how important quality healthcare was for rural families – and she was committed to help both those families and the facilities serving them succeed.
That commitment led Wehling to a position with the Oklahoma Hospital Association, she said. There, she worked on Hospital Engagement Network – or HEN – helping western Oklahoma rural hospitals move beyond their historical confines.
“The HEN was a project that assisted hospitals to identify and develop quality improvement initiatives,” Wehling said.
That background helped Wehling when she moved to Mercy three years ago, first traveling to two of its rural facilities – Kingfisher and El Reno. There, she developed quality improvement and infection prevention programs; administrators said her dedication and knowledge made her a perfect fit for something different, however.
“I am now only in Mercy Hospital El Reno as the director of nursing as well as continuing with quality improvement, infection prevention and risk management,” Wehling said. “It is so rewarding to actually see the results of the initiatives and the level of quality that we have achieved at Mercy Hospital El Reno.”
Mercy El Reno’s 35-member nursing staff has seen a lot of changes in the last nine years. In 2009, the then-Parkview Hospital Board – held in a city trust – was taken over by members of El Reno City Council, after its longtime board resigned in protest of the firing of the hospital’s administrator. After first going through a management transition with Brentwood, Tennessee-based Quorum Health Corporation, El Reno’s council chose to hand the reins over to Mercy.
Thus, Mercy Hospital El Reno was born.
While the changes of close to a decade ago were substantial, the hospital since then has seen many more, Wehling said. Administrators and staff have worked hard to revamp not only the facility’s infrastructure, but also a lagging reputation that plagued it for many years.
“I think Parkview got a bad rap for a long, long time,” El Reno Mayor Matt White said last year. “While it wasn’t popular with everyone, especially people who had strong ties to the hospital back then, I think our faith in Mercy has been more than justified – and, it was one of the best decisions we’ve made.”
Mercy’s 48-bed El Reno facility, built in 1954, is on the cusp of even more change, however – in May, White said it looked like a long-anticipated new hospital, located adjacent to Interstate 40, was finally in the works.
The new Mercy Hospital El Reno, once complete, would be a 40,000-square-foot, $22 million project much different than the existing building. The new design was expected to incorporate perhaps 10 to 14 in-patient beds, while greatly expanding the emergency department and featuring surgical suites, an after-care clinic, lab and pharmacy, White said.
Most recently, El Reno City Council in November approved negotiating a contract for the new facility design with Oklahoma City-based Rees Associates. Once construction begins, it should take about 18 months, the mayor said.
For Wehling, her nursing staff and the rest of El Reno’s hospital personnel, the move would usher in a new era of care – and be a shining example of Mercy’s commitment to rural healthcare, something close to the nursing director’s heart.
“It is so exciting to know that we’ll have such an amazing, up-to-date facility, and it will be such a wonderful thing for all of our nearby families, particularly rural patients who deserve the best of care,” Wehling said, as she walked through the El Reno facility. “While they already get that now with us, obviously there are challenges with a hospital that’s more than 50 years old.”
While Mercy’s El Reno changes are inspirational, much of Wehling’s 42-year career has been marked by milestones, things she said she’s been lucky to be a part of. That began with her education – Wehling was a member of then-Central State University’s, now University of Central Oklahoma, Class of 1975. It was only the college’s third nursing class, and just the start of her education. In 1984, Wehling would add an MSN to her BSN with a degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Wehling, now 66, for a time left her rural roots and worked as a nurse in the urban healthcare community, at a time when things were changing quickly, she said.
“I started my career at Children’s Hospital on the toddler’s ward and can remember the starting of the first NICU in the state during that time,” Wehling said. “My professional career has always been in nursing – I have been at the bedside, nursing education and management and administration.”
Despite her wide range of work – from urban to rural and large to small facilities – Wehling said smaller towns and wide-open spaces were closest to her heart, not just professionally, but on a personal level.
“We still maintain our farm in north central Oklahoma,” she said. “Some of the best days of my life were raising the kids on a family farm – we had wonderful experiences and always great stories to share.
“I have always considered myself so fortunate to be a nurse, to be able to help people, and in rural hospitals, it just seems even more special, because I know the strength of these people – what they face, how they live,” Wehling said, as she looked around the El Reno hospital that has become her work home. “It’s been the best experience anyone could ask for, and I know that I’m home with Mercy.”