Answering the Call

By Brian Voerding

The careers of two nurses and Winona State University graduates began similarly, focused on caring for one patient at a time. Then they rose, practically parallel, to positions directing the delivery of care to patients at the two largest healthcare institutions in the region.

Mary Lu Gerke '95 is vice president for nursing services at Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Just across town, Diane Holmay '76 | '89 is vice president for nursing services and patient care at Franciscan Skemp Healthcare. Hundreds of nurses learn from them. Grow with them. Are inspired by their example.

Both Gerke and Holmay, while ceaselessly dedicated, never planned on pursuing anything larger than their first love of patient care. But in a combined 70 years of service, their paths seemed determined by something that guided them long before their first day on the job:

Calling.

A word that begins with the same letters as "career," but something defined so separately. Something you just had to do. Something you were led to.

Gerke, who earned her undergraduate degree at Viterbo University in 1974, knew early on that she wanted to be a nurse. Anything else "didn't fill my soul. It didn't fill me up." She found her first job at St. Francis Hospital (which would later become Franciscan Skemp) in the intensive care unit.

Holmay earned her undergraduate degree at Winona State and also began her career at St. Francis in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she had interned as a student. Two years later, she became a certified neonatal practitioner.

"For some reason I got it in my head that I wanted to take care of babies early on in school," Holmay says. "I loved the excitement, the challenges, the happy moments as well as the sad. Working with families at a special time in their lives left me with memories I'll never forget. "

In their early days as nurses, both say they were hooked on the thrills of a forever-shifting matrix of circumstances, charts, crises, and cures.

"It was very high stress and at the same time sacred space," Gerke says. "You saw the patients in their most vulnerable time. Of course none of them wanted to be there. But many times you saved people's lives. And at times, helped them leave the world as peacefully as possible"

Continually at the poles of emotion, the women discovered spirituality.

"The transition from the large energy that some would call God, or a super-consciousness, is transmitted to us when we become a physical human being at birth," Gerke believes. "There's biology to it, but there's also spirituality, the energy, the soul. It connects humans to humans. It's a very sacred place."

Gerke moved for a few years to North Memorial Hospital in the Twin Cities, then returned in 1979 to La Crosse to work at Lutheran (which would become Gundersen Lutheran) as director of the hospital's surgical intensive care unit.

Holmay's career turned later. In the early 1990s, she explored the broader connections between babies and family health. She was part of the team that created the Center for Women's Health at Franciscan Skemp. When it opened in 1993, she signed on as director. It was a natural transition from her previous work, moving from intensive care to providing a holistic approach to women's health.

"I started thinking about, when a baby is sick, what happens with the family dynamic?" Holmay says. "When a mom is sick, what happens? That pivotal role makes such a difference in the health of a family."

Holmay's work led her beyond La Crosse and all the way to Russia, where she helped open a women's wellness center in 1998, and to Ukraine, where she assisted two cities in strengthening health care for community families.

Neither Gerke nor Holmay had planned on moving from direct care to management. One phrase rises again and again when they recount their journey:  lifelong learning. It led both to master's degrees at Winona State, and to increasingly higher positions at Gundersen Lutheran and Franciscan Skemp.

"I still feel the way I did when I was a student, anxious to get up in the morning and learn," Holmay says. "I love change. We can all get fatigued with change, but it makes us feel alive, makes us feel that we're moving in the right direction."

Both are closely tied to the future of nursing and healthcare in the region, and recognize that there are plenty of challenges.

Holmay is concerned about the mounting disparity between the severity and complexity of illnesses and the time people spend in healthcare settings rather than their homes. She looks back to her previous role, teaching women about their needs as part of what came naturally. Meeting people where they are, with no walls. Helping communities keep well and out of the healthcare system as much as possible.

Gerke hopes to teach her nurses what they consistently communicate to their patients, yet rarely practice:  take care of yourself. It's a skill that she says leads immediately to improved patient care.

"When I came out of school we had a morning break, a lunch break, we sat down and said, 'How is everybody doing? Are there things we can help each other with?' Now my nurses aren't getting their morning breaks, they're not getting their lunch breaks. This has got to change."

Today, Gerke teaches her nurses a simple but profoundly difficult task:  how to breathe.

"If we're angry or upset or negative, that's the energy we give to the patient. If the patients feel anxious it doesn't create that atmosphere of healing. If we approach the patient in a centered, calm manner and focus on them, they heal better."

It may seem that Gerke and Holmay are now distant from their first calling as nurses. But they haven't strayed very far from their roots. They still make rounds in clinical settings and at their hospitals.

"We didn't leave nursing when we became administrators," says Holmay. "We influence care from a different vantage point. In taking care of our staff, we care for our patients."

"When I first started doing this, a team of doctors, nurses, people from facilities, were looking all over for me. I came out of a room and they said, 'Where have you been?'" recalls Gerke.

"I'm with a patient, isn't that what we're here for? I'm a nurse. I'll always be a nurse."