Back In Service

Many of the nurses helping administer COVID vaccines at the clinics held so far in the Avera Sacred Heart Professional Office Pavilion bring decades of experience with them and are semi-retired or working part-time. They are (from left to right): Lynette Bruening, RN; Vickie Helland, RN; Jan Johnson, RN; Ellen Becker, RN; and Cheryl Slowey, RN.

After retiring from their careers of caring for people, Yankton nurses are coming out of retirement to help administer COVID-19 vaccines.

So far, Avera Sacred Heart Hospital has given around eight mass vaccinations, called clinics, for about 2,000 individuals, according to Jan Johnson, an infection prevention nurse at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital (ASHH).

Johnson has worked 30 years in infection control; she is not yet retired but is part-time. She is working closely with Infection Prevention Director Liz Healy to organize vaccine clinics and administer the vaccine.

“I was really happy to be a part of this effort,” Johnson said. “I think the public is going to be really pleased when they go to the clinic, because it is so organized. There’s no waiting, so people get in there and get out of there pretty fast, but they still get really good care.”

Many retired nurses choose to take shifts on a casual basis when the hospital calls, explained Ellen Becker, a registered nurse (RN) for 33 years before retiring four years ago.

“If I can contribute anything to help ease the pressure from those nurses in acute care, and in the nursing homes that have been working double shifts — triple shifts — and who’ve had so much heartache, because people dying of COVID,” Becker said. “This is the least we can do.”

The retired nurses stepped up to man the clinics at a time when hospital staff was still recovering from the fall spike of COVID cases.

“Many of our unit nurses needed a break after COVID hit its peak in Yankton during October and November, and these experienced nurses were so eager and willing to come and help that it allowed me to move forward with other phases of clinic planning.” Healy told the Press & Dakotan. “Honestly, I would not have been able to run these clinics as efficiently and safely without this group of wonderful nurses. They are confident and full of expertise. That made everyone who came in for a vaccine feel at ease.”

“I go back to what one of them said: ‘We may not be able to work in the ICU taking care of COVID patients, but we can help inoculate people to prevent more COVID patients.’”

Though it has been out of the public view, retired nurses who picked up shifts last fall saw the worst of the pandemic locally and the toll it took on ASHH nurses and staff.

Many people don’t realize what COVID really is until you see it in the intensive care unit (ICU), said Cheryl Slowey, an Avera nurse for more than 50 years who retired in 2018.

“Helplessly watching your peers and the nurses that you work with completely break down because they just had to help someone die is one of the worst feelings in the world,” Slowey said. “This is real, it’s happening in Yankton and we need this vaccine to move on.”

Often, there were just a few minutes for ICU nurses to cry before having to suit up again and go into the next patient’s room, she said.

“We need this. We need to get this done, and that’s what’s driving me,” Slowey said. “I don’t want to see my fellow nurses break down like that ever again.”

Sometimes the tears of relief come during the vaccine clinics.

“I witnesses somebody getting the vaccine and the minute they got it into their arm, they just broke into tears, because they were so overjoyed at getting to that point where they can be protected by the vaccine,” said Lynette Bruening, an RN for 48 years, who also came out of retirement to help with the vaccination process. “It brought tears to my eyes. That is something we provide, and that person was not taking it for granted. It really meant a lot.”

All of the nurses interviewed agreed that Healy, along with Matt Merkel, director of pharmacy; Rochell Lundquist, Human Resources partner; and Jennifer Suing, quality specialist, deserve to be acknowledged for their part in the planning and organization of the vaccine clinics.

“It has been going very smoothly,” noted Mary Pesek who retired in 2017 after 43 years of nursing. “I’m so glad that I can be available and I want to reassure the people in our community that we will be there for them.

“We will keep giving shots and help for as long as we’re needed.”

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