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Managing Your Career
Become a Nurse Superstar

Part one of a two-part exclusive interview with Sally Lemke, winner of the 2007 Super Star in Community Nursing award.

It’s a conundrum: How could the recipient of the VNA Foundation’s “SuperStar in Community Nursing Award”—a $25,000 prize—get the axe a mere few days later?

Sally Lemke, who was a nurse practitioner in Chicago’s Cook County healthcare system, became a local celebrity when this unthinkable scenario played out--and the media made her story headline news. With a nursing shortage looming, it seemed surreal that one of nursing’s VIPs would be canned.

Despite the drama of losing her job—and the constant challenge of not being respected as a nurse practitioner—Lemke remains devoted to the nursing profession and her patients. In this first part of a two-part exclusive interview with RealityRN, Lemke shares what it takes to excel as a nurse and how to persevere through the discouragement.

RealityRN: So what are the characteristics of a nurse “superstar”?

Sally Lemke: A superstar nurse not only fully understands the contributions nurses bring to health care systems, patient care, and communities as a whole, but also goes above and beyond to make sure those contributions are made.
A superstar nurse always looks for a better and more efficient evidence-based way of doing something and for ways to complement and enhance the services of colleagues. Most importantly, a superstar nurse is always going that extra mile for her patients.

Each year, the VNA Foundation honors a community health nurse who stands out in three areas: clinical care, client advocacy, and innovation and creativity. I agree that excellence in all of these areas is what all nurses should strive for.

What do you love about the nursing profession, specifically your role as a nurse practitioner?

My role as a nurse practitioner allows me to fully and holistically care for those I work with. Bringing nursing philosophy into the exam room during direct patient care visits enhances the actual physical care provided to the patient. Nurses and nurse practitioners are trained to actively listen to their patients and understand the alterations in their physical well-being. They also learn to see their patients as part of their families, communities, workplaces, and cultures.

What are your greatest obstacles as a nurse practitioner?

Unfortunately, there still is resistance to advanced practice nursing, especially NPs, who practice direct patient care. Despite the fact that nurse practitioners have been proven time and time again in solid research studies to provide care of equal quality to that of physicians (and, mind you, with higher patient satisfaction), there are still some physicians who feel we are not qualified to do the work we do.

This is evidenced by the backlash against the store-based urgent care centers where NPs are fulfilling a needed niche in our faulty health care system: affordable quality urgent care when you need it, in your community, with a referral to a primary health care provider for ongoing health maintenance.

Have you ever wanted to give up?

I have been in a position where little value was placed on my advanced skills and degree. Several years ago I held a position as a direct patient care NP at an institution which did not provide me with the same nursing and support services that MDs received, simply because I was a nurse! I was not openly welcome at provider meetings and was expected to attend the support and ancillary staff meetings.

However, if a physician called off that day, I was expected to see that provider’s caseload in addition to whatever was on my schedule for the day—all without any help from the nursing or other support staff!! Needless to say, I moved on as soon as I could! I didn’t want to give up, but I knew it was time to find a place that valued all that I had to offer.

Where have you felt valued?

I can honestly say that in community health settings, I have never experienced skepticism regarding my skills and qualifications. Community health settings are great places for nurses to feel valued and needed--and they are viewed as an integral part of the health care system at large.

What keeps you going despite the discouragement?

Clearly, it’s the sense that I know the patients are the ones who count. Getting the feedback that you have made a difference in someone’s life usually puts the frustrations to rest. Knowing a baby stayed in a belly two weeks longer and wasn’t born premature; that a teen mom decided to breastfeed; or, that someone came back for needed care because she said she felt like she could trust you and talk to you: those are the things that make me love nursing and help me work through the frustrations. This work is very fulfilling for me.

Sally Lemke is currently working for the Rush University College of Nursing in their Faculty Practices. She works in organizations (usually non-profits) that partner and contract with the College of Nursing to provide staffing for their programs. The workplaces are, in turn, used as sites to train undergraduate and graduate nurses. Currently, she’s involved in two separate projects: the Healthy Heart Project for women that is in partnership with the Chicago Lights' Center for Whole Health (affiliated with the Fourth Presbyterian Church, downtown Chicago) and the Why Wait? program, in partnership with the Dupage Co. Health Dept., a breast and cervical cancer screening program for uninsured women. In Spring 2008, nurses will be able to nominate their community, public, and home health nursing colleagues for the VNA Foundation’s Super Star in Community Nursing Award. This year, in addition to the grand prize of $25,000, five finalists were awarded $2000 each for their outstanding work.

Read more Managing Your Career articles

4 Responses to “Become a Nurse Superstar”

  1. Adrienne Zurub Says:

    I give Ms.Lemke a lot of credit for doing what she does with such resilence (and some self-effacement!)

    I would interested to know what actions she took to correct the perceptions, mistreatment and further the cause of both NP’s and RN’s as a whole.
    Did she lodge complaints? Report mistreatment to human resources?
    What proactive measures did she utilize to change the course of her mistreatment?

    I admit, in reading this story I immediately thought of what SHE was doing wrong to receive such treatment!

    I would have like to know WHY she was fired in this article and more of the circumstances so as not to form a faulty conclusion.


    Adrienne Zurub, RN,CNOR
    ‘Notes From the Mothership The Naked Invisibles’

  2. Sally Lemke Says:

    Thanks to Adrienne Zurab for asking for details on some important points.
    To clear up the point about my getting “canned”, I was actually “bumped” from my job due to budget cuts and union seniority. My APN job was one of a small handful of APN positions left on the Cook County IL budget for 2007 due to the success of the prenatal programming I had implemented. Dozens of APNs with more seniority than me had their positions eliminated and were able to take the positions of the few of us who were left. I was forced to choose between a layoff or a demotion. I chose the former. When my bumping was eminent, there were many in positions of leadership who were outraged and worked to keep my in my job because they saw my skills as necessary to the success of the prenatal programming I had started. But in the end, rules are rules. And while I am still saddened by the halting of much of what I started, I do not begrudge the Nurse Practitioner who bumped me as it was her union right.
    To speak to Ms. Zurab’s interest in what actions I took after my lay off, the media attention that my lay off generated in Chicago gave me the perfect opportunity to shed light on the inequities of our health care system and the value nurses bring to individuals and communities in need. To many, it seemed unthinkable that a Nurse Practitioner who had just won an award for reducing low birth weight babies and preterm delivery rates in a poor neighborhood in Chicago could get a lay off notice. But the reality is that my lay off is just one symptom of the much larger problem of our health care system and that was the point I tried to drive home with the ensuing TV and newsprint interviews. Nurses provide vital services for our individuals and communities and I think it was a good thing for all nurses to put a face (mine!) on the sad story of the loss to our patients that ensues when we are devalued.
    Sally Lemke RNC, MS, APN

  3. LaMont Stewart Says:

    I was also wrongfully terminated from the Cleveland Clinic very resently. I was hoping to meet you at the book signing on March 3 but I was told the signing was posponed. I would like very much to get a reply from you to hear what happened with me. I had worked there for 32 years.
    Hope to get a response.

  4. Sally Lemke Says:

    I was saddened to hear that an employee with such seniority was wrongfully terminated from their job. Sounds like you and Adrienne Zurub could have an interesting conversation. I’d love to be in on it myself! I hope you had or will have the chance to meet her at her rescheduled book signing.
    I think it would be interesting to hear more details about your situation on this forum, if you feel comfortable sharing. During my time of anger, angst, bewilderment, and sadness that resulted from my termination, I found much support in reaching out to my nursing colleagues.
    Good Luck with your situation.
    Sally Lemke

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