Debbie Pender, RN, advocates for nurses and the patients at SSM Midwest in her new role as chief nursing officer.

by James Coburn – staff writer

Debbie Pender serves as a team builder as the chief nursing officer at SSM Midwest, located in Midwest City. She has been CNO of SSM Midwest since June, after SSM purchased the hospital from Community Health Systems in April. Her goal has been to enhance the leadership structure from a for-profit hospital to a not-for-profit.
Pender has been a nurse for nearly 36 years. She has stayed with nursing because she loves advocating for the vulnerable, being the voice of a helpless patient.
In leadership, her altruism translates to being the hands and the feet of the bedside nurse.
“I advocate for the bedside nurse,” she said. “What I enjoyed at the bedside is still what I enjoy as chief nursing officer. I get to advocate for other people,” Pender said.
Pender earned her Bachelor of Science degree and her Master of Science degree in Nursing at the University of Oklahoma. In 2013 Pender earned her MBA in Health Care Management from Walden University.
“One of the things that was made clear to me during my interviews was just the need to re-set the nursing culture, and to grow the nursing structure here,” Pender said.
She was chosen for her history of improving quality and safety as a nurse leader. She began by recruiting a strong core of leadership to improve patient care. Safe and effective care is what patients deserve from any bedside nurse, she said. Pender admires the resiliency of the nursing staff. (story continues below)

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“When I came here, I wasn’t expecting to hear about the tenure of some of the nurses,” she continued.
One RN began her nursing career at the hospital in 1977. Another nurse has worked there for 50 years and counting. Many of the nursing staff have been at the hospital for more than a decade. She wasn’t expecting such longevity in an organization that had experienced a lot of transition between different owners.
“So, I was pleasantly surprised with the really great core of nurses who have been here — who have stayed here through all the changes,” she said. “And I believe in what can take the nursing culture here to the next level.”
Nurses at SSM Midwest believe in advocating for the needs of the patients. Pender has witnessed excellent bedside care. She pointed out one of the bedside nurses working on the medical/surgical unit.
“Our patients are sicker. They’re probably sicker now than I’ve ever seen,” Pender explained. “And so, we get these patients that probably could be in the ICU, but we don’t have an ICU bed because of COVID. And so, we have these really sick patients on a medical floor, and that’s not typical. But I have a particular nurse, and obviously it’s not just her, but she stands out because she is dogged about ensuring the patient gets the care that they need.”
This can be challenging on the med/surg floor when a nurse has six patients. But Pender pointed out that the nurse responds quickly to each of her patients’ needs. She sets an example in notifying physicians of any changes and being keen on notifying families about how their loved one is doing, Pender said.
SSM is limiting visitation during COVID. Pender noted that nurses at SSM Midwest advocate steadily for their patients during a time of caring for sicker, and sicker patients, due to the COVID Delta variant.
“Even our critical care patients are sicker than they were in June when I came,” she said.
June was a month when COVID-19 was primarily impacting the older population and patients with co-morbidities. Now hospitals are seeing an influx of very young people with COVID, Pender said.
“They tend to try to get well longer than some of our older patients,” Pender said. “The relationships they build with these families and the patients along the way, I think is a lot different than what we saw in the elderly population.”
Additionally, Pender said there is an increase of patients resisting hospital care during the pandemic, making them even sicker when admitted. COVID has made nursing care more challenging. There was already a shortage of registered nurses in the United States before the pandemic. Now, CNO’s across the state are working with even fewer RNs.
“I came from Mercy, and it was the same thing there,” she said.
Nurses are leaving the profession because of COVID. Some nurses leave because they don’t want to get immunized from the disease, even though it has taken more than 700,000 lives in the nation. She said nurses can make a lot of money by traveling, often to Texas, to care for patients battling COVID.
“So, I’ve been a nurse leader for 15 years now, and it is the most difficult time in recruitment in my career,” Pender said.
Nursing schools are not producing enough graduates, one reason being is the lack of faculty.
“Typically, colleges struggle with getting enough faculty so they can accept more nursing students,” she said.
Nursing has been voted the most trusted profession in the US. for many years.
“That always makes me proud that being a nurse is being a part of that trusted profession. I think right now it’s a great time to be a nurse because the nursing profession continues to grow. We gain more autonomy all the time, especially as we care for sicker and sicker patients. Our skills and especially highly skilled RNs are in high demand. So, I think the job opportunities truly are endless.”
Especially with COVID, it makes you feel good to connect with patients, she said.
“It’s really an honor to be with patients in their time of crisis,” Pender said.