Veteran Nurse: After 35 years Kathy Rea still loves being a nurse
July 01, 2011
BY DAVE REESE/Montana Health Journal
As Kathy Rea walked among the hallways of North Valley Hospital recently, people greeted her warmly and sincerely, like a friend they’ve known for years.
Perhaps because she has been a friend to these people for so many years. With 36 years of service, Rea is the longest-tenured employee at North Valley Hospital. And, she says, she loves her work as much — or more — than the first day she started.
“A lot of people ask me why I’m not retired, but I still enjoy the work so much,” she said. “I don’t feel any different from the first day I started. I don’t think about that (retiring) very much.”
A lot has changed since Rea, 64, started working as a nurse at North Valley Hospital in 1974. When Rea went to work at North Valley Hospital, there was no such thing as text messaging, laptop computers, or even voice mail. But one aspect of her work that has remained constant is North Valley Hospital’s approach to patient care. The hospital in 2002 became affiliated with Planetree, an approach that puts the patient at the center of all of the hospital’s healthcare management decisions, from design of rooms to how hospital employees interact with each other.
“The approach to the patient is truly comprehensive,” Rea said in an interview at the hospital.
Founded in 1978 by a San Francisco patient who endured a traumatic healthcare experience, Planetree is an internationally-recognized, nonprofit organization that partners with healthcare providers around the globe to advance patient-centered approaches to care. The Planetree method focuses on the mind, body and spirit of the patient, and Rea said the Planetree methods do provide better patient outcomes. It has also helped Rea become a better leader.
Rea has spent most of her years at the hospital in the medical surgery department, and she oversees a staff of 29 nurses and nurse assistants. As a leader at the hospital, Rea was instrumental in helping design the new North Valley Hospital. Part of the Planetree method is to give employees a voice in management decisions. When the hospital was being built Rea got to help pick designs of the new patient rooms — a job she talks about proudly. “It was a lot of work, but we all had a say in it,” she said. From the colors of the rooms, to the size and location, the employees got to have their says. One thing helped them make their decisions in the new hospital’s design: “It was all about the patients,” Rea said.
As Rea walked throughout the hospital, it was easy to see how she has excelled through the years. In her time at North Valley Hospital, Rea has served in many nursing capacities, from emergency room to orthopedics, where she is focused now.
What has also changed since Rea started in nursing is the financial environment in which health care is provided. With so many more regulations, liabilities and intitiatives, Rea said nurses — and all healthcare providers — have to work that much harder to provide a high level of service. “It’s changing all the time,” she said.
Patients are changing too, Rea said. Many patients now are much more acutely ill by the time they get care. “People are just sicker,” she said. One of the most rewarding aspects of her job is building effective teams and setting good examples for others, she said. Rea tries to set a good example by her strong work ethic — something perhaps built by her ranching heritage. “I work hard, put in my time and give it my all,” Rea said. “I come in early and I stay late. My parents taught me a good work ethic.”
Rea was raised in Iowa and it was on a ski trip to Colorado in 1969 that she discovered the Rocky Mountains. Rea began her nursing career as an orthopedics nurse at the University of Colorado, then went on to become a flight nurse at Craig Hospital in Denver. On a ski trip to Breckenridge in 1971 she met her husband, Denny Rea. She and Denny moved to Whitefish in 1974 and settled on a farm that her father, a cattle buyer in Iowa, had purchased east of Whitefish.
After 36 years at North Valley Hospital, Rea is a very connected part of the community. People, like Dr. Miller, who work at the hospital, were children she watched grow up in Whitefish. Her own son was born at North Valley Hospital. Jason Spring, CEO of North Valley Hospital, said Rea is a shining example of what the people at the hospital strive to be. “She epitomizes the nurse who is here to take care of her community, those people, friends and family who are our neighbors,” Spring said. “And, she does it in a loving, sincere way.”
When she’s not working, Rea’s other passion is singing. She sings in the Glacier Symphony Chorale and Glacier Chamber Singers, and Christ Lutheran Church. “That’s pretty much what I do,” she said. “The people and the music just fill my soul.” •