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Bringing a rural hospital and its community together through purpose

Hospitals are essential in the fabric of both small and large communities, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, their role became even more important. As hospitals of all sizes struggled to deliver patient-centered care, those health systems that prioritized the patient experience during such an unprecedented time have been able to weather the storm far more successfully.

It’s these healthcare organizations and the individuals who lead them that NRC Health recognizes with its Excellence in Human Understanding Award. This article is one of a series celebrating the achievements of healthcare workers who have had an outsized impact on patient care.

One of this year’s nominees is Linda Nelson, a respiratory therapist and the Director of Ancillary Services at Chase County Community Hospital (CCCH), a 15-bed critical-access hospital in Imperial, Nebraska.

Purpose Is Everything

According to the Pew Research Center, community hospitals in America serve approximately 46 million residents of rural areas and 175 million people living in suburban and small metro areas. While this is certainly a sizable chunk of the population, rural hospitals have long been overlooked when it comes to having the necessary resources and staff to operate at normal capacities, forcing many to shutter their doors in recent years. So how do community hospitals continue to survive while facing these dilemmas head-on?

For Nelson and the rest of the staff at CCCH, they operate like a tight-knit family, keeping Human Understanding at the forefront of the care experience, regardless of the care being provided.

“I am a firm believer that you don’t have roles in a small or rural hospital, you just have your team,” says Nelson. “And together, that team must have purpose.”

To help the staff at CCCH find purpose in their work, the management team and staff have spent the last year updating the hospital’s core values—which, according to Nelson, the hospital staff had not evaluated in more than 18 years. The team made it their mission to pare these down from a long list of industry buzzwords to four main values that the team most connected with: kindness, integrity, teamwork, and excellence.

“If you can operate within those core values, then that translates to your patient care,” says Nelson. “Treat everyone with kindness. Be the first person to smile. Be the first person to say hello. It’s the little things. When you complicate it too much, you lose the element of Human Understanding. And patients feel that.”

Trust Breeds Success

Hospitals have always played a critical role in rural communities, as the first line of defense to keep people healthy. But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve become a lifeline. As a respiratory therapist during this time of crisis, Nelson experienced this firsthand.

“When you live in a small community, you want to see the people in it living healthy, happy, thriving lives,” she says. “You want it to be a place where everyone feels safe.”

Nelson’s colleague, physician assistant Nicole Havel, says that Nelson helps create that sense of safety and belonging inside the hospital and with her patients. According to Havel, patients and staff alike rely on Nelson’s humor, thoughtfulness, and leadership. “She really is the glue that holds us together,” says Havel.

Nelson’s ability to establish trust among staff, and between the hospital and the Chase County community, has been a big contributor to CCCH’s success throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As Nelson puts it, “As a rural healthcare provider, you just have to get better. When you live in a small town, if you’re having a heart attack, or you’re having breathing problems, or you’re in a car accident, unfortunately, our care organizations don’t always have the necessary resources to provide you with the right level of care. We don’t have a cardiac catheterization lab. We don’t have a trauma surgeon. We just don’t have the same access as a bigger hospital. But if we can instill in our community the confidence that we’re going to take the absolute best care of them that we possibly can until that point of transfer, then that’s the best trade-off.”

Lead by Example

What’s the most important aspect of leadership in a community hospital? To Nelson, attitude is everything.

“Bring the right attitude and set the right example,” she says. “I just don’t think it gets any more important than that, because if you can lead by example, others are going to follow that example. It may take them longer to get there, but whether you’re a fourth grader, a freshman, or a 60-year-old, be the person you want to be around.”

Clinicians like Linda Nelson who put their team and patients first are exemplary of what it means to practice medicine with Human Understanding at the forefront. We are proud to honor her and the other hospitals and healthcare systems who go above and beyond every day to serve their patients and communities. Congratulations again for earning this recognition!