Nurses of Note Awards 2023: The Nursing Team at Blue Mountain Hospital, a Critical Access Facility
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PerfectServe’s Nurses of Note awards program honors nurses who deserve recognition for their service, sacrifice, and devotion to their patients and colleagues. For the third annual year of the Nurses of Note program, PerfectServe is highlighting nurses who’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty and whose resilience, creativity, and determination inspire others to do the same.
These honorees are outstanding representatives from the field of nursing, and the stories they share help paint a picture of the difference they make for their patients and communities every single day. Of the 200-plus winners from this year’s program, we’ve selected a handful to engage with more in-depth profiles, which will be published throughout the year. These are their stories.
Honoree 1: The Blue Mountain Hospital Nursing Team (Blanding, UT)
Sulane Knight, Nicole Bradford, Sunny Jones, Troy Palmer, Crystal Shumway, Stephanie Ivins, Tiarra Begay, Kellie Mills, Christina Brandt, and Brandi Baird
If you ask any health system how their providers handled the pandemic, most would say it was a struggle to meet patient demands, push through immense PPE and protocol pressures, and stay positive throughout the spread of the virus. For Blue Mountain Hospital (BMH), a critical access hospital in Blanding, Utah, these were just a few of the many adversities they faced—and overcame—since the onset of COVID.
The non-profit hospital—which has 11 beds and six med-surg rooms—sits near the Navajo and Ute Native American reservations. Since 2009, BMH has served the Navajo Health System, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the residents of San Juan County. It’s one of only two hospitals in the county and was the first medical center in Blanding, which was settled more than 100 years ago.
Because of its relative isolation, on any given day, BMH has to contend with limited resources. Sulane Knight, Chief Nursing Officer at the hospital, said that she only has three nurses to run the entire hospital most days. When the pandemic hit, the critical access facility couldn’t just slow down their emergency, labor & delivery, and general hospital services for the 15,000-plus people who rely on it for care. This is why the nurses at BMH aren’t specialized in one area. In fact, almost all of the nurses provide care in different areas simply because they have to—their patients rely on it.
“When you’re a critical access hospital with three nurses, it takes an entire team of nurses to keep a patient alive,” Sulane said.
During the many months when the pandemic seemingly brought the world to its knees, the nursing team at BMH found themselves grappling with struggle after struggle. The hospital works with other medical centers and care locations as much as possible, but during the height of COVID, the inflow of resources almost ground to a halt. At times, patients were bagged for hours—some up to 10 hours—while a transfer was being worked out. Nurses would ride in ambulances with their patients on a regular basis. The influx of patients was daunting at times, but the BMH team did not crumble.
Because BMH is a smaller facility, the care team had to be extra diligent about PPE and preventing the spread of COVID. With only three or four lab staff on site at all times, many nurses had to stay isolated from lab staff. Nurses had to start learning new tasks, taking on new roles, and wearing more hats. The hospital had no on-site social workers or mental health support throughout the pandemic; in fact, the endless sacrifice, lost patients, and extreme burnout forced some nurses to leave the hospital altogether.
The BMH team has begun to recover, but they’re not there just yet. It takes time to heal from the constant pressure and stress that the small team of 32 nurses (of which only about ten are full-time) experienced. Brandi Baird, a nurse at BMH for eight years, explained what she learned from the pandemic and how many nurses felt extreme physical and mental stress during that time.
“There definitely is a shortage of nurses and training. We had so many patients that we typically do not care for in this small hospital,” Brandi said. “We had to teach and help the new nurses feel comfortable with a higher level of care that they may not have had an opportunity to do otherwise. It was a very emotional and physical time for all involved.”
Christina Brandt, who has been with BMH for close to 14 years, also recalled this hospital’s struggles over the last three years:
Before COVID, the local nursing college had a long wait list of candidates waiting to fill their limited class slots. The college typically takes 15 students at a time, but the last nursing class only had six graduates. The decline in available nurses was noticeable throughout the pandemic, and unfortunately, the shortage hasn’t gotten much better. A not-insignificant number of experienced nurses chose to retire or leave the profession as the pandemic played out, which left remaining nurses unable to benefit from their wisdom and years of service.
BMH has been able to hire a small number of nurses to begin rebuilding their team, but the recovery is far from over. They’re now working with the University of Utah to help address some of the mental health struggles that many of their nurses continue to face. But overall, this nursing team wants to be known for the head-on approach they took to handling the pandemic. Despite their remote location, limited resources and staff, and the extreme burnout levels they faced, this team remains dedicated to serving the diverse communities around them. In fact, the pandemic actually reinforced for many of these nurses just how critical they are to their colleagues and their community.
“I learned that nurses are critical in every community,” said Sunny Jones, who’s been a nurse at BMH for five years. “Nurses were the true heroes during the pandemic when most other employees did their work from home.”
“[Our hospital] gives care to those who are underinsured or uninsured, [and we also give] older adults the benefits of healthcare that they need and may not be able to get anywhere else,” Christina shared. “Our community needs [us] desperately.”
As a critical access hospital, the importance of the care that BMH and its nursing team has provided both pre- and post-pandemic can’t be overstated. The dedication of this rural team, the depth of care they provide, and the unwavering support they provide for patients who walk through their doors is truly unique. Sulane says it’s not for the faint of heart.
“Sometimes we feel forgotten, sometimes we feel inferior, when really we do so much and wear so many hats that I feel we need to be highlighted for the things that we are asked to do,” she said. “Travel nurses sometimes struggle when coming to a rural hospital, because they [aren’t used to wearing so many different hats]. We don’t have specialized teams helping us. Sometimes there are only a few of us to do the work of many. Rural nurses are one of a kind.”
To the nurses at Blue Mountain Hospital: Your tenacity and integrity will inspire many other nursing teams, both large and small, to be steadfast and strong in the face of adversity. We see you and recognize the depth of the struggles you faced throughout the pandemic. Your community is fortunate to have nurses who remind us all why nursing is named the world’s noblest profession year after year. Thank you for your service—we’re honored to declare you our first Nurses of Note for 2023!
In addition to learning about their experience as a critical access hospital throughout the pandemic, we asked the Blue Mountain Hospital nursing team some questions to get to know them better:
Why did you choose to become a nurse?
Kellie Mills: I’ve always wanted to be a nurse! Growing up, I had family members who are nurses. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do and was able to do once I was out of high school.
Tiarra Begay: I chose to become a nurse to help anyone and everyone who needs it.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned working at a critical access hospital during the pandemic?
Crystal Shumway: I learned that while most staff were at home safe, nurses still had to come to work and take care of sick and dying patients! It didn’t matter if we had a family or if we didn’t have the supplies we needed to keep ourselves safe. We were expected to show up and put our health and families’ health at risk for the sake of the patients.
Sulane Knight: I learned what an amazing hospital we are and what incredible things we can accomplish with little to no help or resources. We had to take initiative, we had to be creative, and yes, we had to put it all on the line. As a hospital, we had to come up with new processes and procedures every day. The changes just kept coming every time the CDC changed their minds. We became a stronger nursing team. We stuck together and worked hard as one. Yes, we sacrificed for the other employees in this hospital, but in the end, we were the heroes. We were the ones who gave it all. We are now experts in PPE, handwashing, and mask-wearing. We are much more aware and vigilant about infection control, which benefits our whole hospital.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self about working in the healthcare industry?
Christina Brandt: Devote time to serving the Lord, putting Him first in life. You need spiritual life for well-being. Take time with family and loved ones—you never get that time back. You can miss out on life. Do not let work consume you. Take time for yourself. Serve others with a loving heart. Without some of these things, when you get old, you have nothing. You have not accomplished anything.
Troy Palmer: I would tell my younger self to get as much education as possible!
Stephanie Ivins: If I could give my younger self, or anyone coming into nursing, some advice, I would say to start from the bottom—learn all of the jobs you can.
What do you do to relax after a stressful day?
Nicole Bradford: Honestly, sometimes I binge eat and vegetate on TV or social media. You just need that sometimes!
Christina Brandt: I like to sew many beautiful blankets and quilts, and then give them away and hope they bring a smile to someone’s face.
Troy Palmer: I really enjoy gardening.
What changes would you like to see in the nursing field of the future?
Nicole Bradford: I’d like to see safer and better staffing ratios, as well as more corporations who care about their staff more than they do the dollar. We need better wages for the care we give.
Crystal Shumway: I want to see more teamwork—from the administration down through the cleaning staff and food service employees!
Sulane Knight: I would like more people to realize how rewarding and great it is. I want the younger generation to know that it’s worth it. To be the one who’s there to hold the hands of family members as they watch a loved one pass, to support the young new mother when she feels like she is not enough, to hold a brand new life in your arms and be there for the first breath of life.
Christina Brandt: It’d be nice to see more of our nurses being cross-trained in other areas of our hospital so they can feel competent in all areas of care.
If you had to pick one song that describes your nursing team, what would it be?
Sulane Knight: “What Doesn’t Kill You” by Kelly Clarkson, and also “You Didn’t Have To” by Brown and Gray.
Sunny Jones: “We Are the Champions” by Queen.
Make sure to follow our blog as we publish profiles about more of our amazing Nurses of Note honorees throughout the year! For more about Nurses of Note 2023, check out the full list of winners.