Putting people first

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Sue Conners outside the North Valley Hospital on Thursday, June 14, in Whitefish.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Sue Conners does not advertise. Asked about being named North Valley’s Planetree Caregiver of the Year, one of the hospital’s three annual awards, she deflects with a casual “Oh, yeah, yeah.” She removed her nametag for a photo on a June morning at North Valley, and doesn’t rush to put it back on.

Not that it’s needed anyways. Over nearly 32 years working for North Valley, Conners has become one of the hospital’s most recognizable and beloved faces. And though she’s been nominated for Caregiver of the Year numerous times and frequently cited by patients as one of their most positive interactions at the hospital, you’ll still find her working as hard as ever — buzzing between numerous departments at North Valley as an orthopedic coordinator, discharge nurse and mentor to up-and-coming RNs.

“I’m a leader who wants to fly right at the same level as everybody else that’s out there,” she said. “Whether you’re a housekeeper, whether you’re a nurse’s aide — without all of us, this place doesn’t run.”

Raised in Havre in a medical family — her mother was a nurse, and her sister and brother both went into medicine — Conners originally intended to study physical education at college in Bozeman. But she switched to nursing halfway through because, as she puts it, “I like taking care of people. I like working with people.”

She moved to Whitefish after graduation, where she found a nursing job when opportunity met her deep well of caring for others. She grew concerned when an older friend stopped frequenting his favorite bar, and went to check on him at his home. She found him half in, half out of his front door, fallen with a broken hip.

Her frequent visits and assistance with him at North Valley did not go unnoticed and she was hired soon after.

Soon, however, she needed to make a change. With two young twins at home, “it was hard for me to work 12-hour shifts.” She transitioned to North Valley Home Health, with shifts that could allow her more family time — something she helps young parents on the nursing staff achieve now by taking evening shifts or holidays. “I was able to get to all my kids’ activities, I was able to be home some evenings,” she said of that time. “And then a position at the hospital opened up, and I was hired as a Night Nurse on (Medical Surgery).”

After several years, she again adjusted to striking a balance between caring for others and caring for her family by switching to every third weekend at the hospital, while working full-time as a kindergarten aide at Muldown Elementary. And when her children grew up — her daughter, Jessie Conners, now works in ultrasound at North Valley, while her son is an engineer in Texas — she returned to the hospital as an orthopedic coordinator and discharge nurse.

Three decades in, she’s still the most prepared — arriving a half hour before the doctor to compile patient data, or making rounds with different doctors to understand multiple aspects of care. Though her office is a frequent destination for younger staff seeking advice, Conners is careful to talk through experience, not condescension.

“I don’t ever want to sound like I’m telling someone how to do something,” she said. As one of the veterans on the nursing staff, she enjoys “working with [younger staff] to learn how to do it. And learning myself — I learn from the young nurses all the time.”

For that reason, “My door at the discharge office is always open. They can come to me and ask any question. They can ask me to help them do anything.”

It helps that Conners has what she calls an “uncanny” memory. “I could tell you who was laying in extended care beds 20 years ago,” she said. In fact, she recently cared for a woman she recognized from nursing 25 years ago in Havre.

Details on symptoms, relatives, patterns and what paperwork might be needed down the road don’t escape her notice.

Her attention to detail and compassion didn’t escape colleagues’ notice, either. A frequent nominee for hospital awards, she was finally dubbed the Planetree Caregiver of the Year this summer.

“I’m humbled,” she said of the distinction. “I don’t do my job striving to get an award. I do my job to do what I do.

“It’s hard for me to say that [I’m deserving]. We all are. We all are that person who’s really deserving. I just happened to be the one that they picked this year.”

The award highlights a caregiver who embodies Planetree’s philosophy of patient-centered care, one who works as a partner with patients and meets them where they are, be that in fear, denial, joy or concern.

In short, a caregiver who gets refreshingly real with patients. Conners praised the Planetree model — which North Valley adopted in 2001, about halfway through Conners’ nursing career — for helping guide her care for people first, patients second. “Personally, [Planetree] is the way that all caregivers should treat their patients and their families,” she said. “It’s helping people. It’s not judging, it’s not questioning why somebody’s where they’re at.”

Referring to her North Valley colleagues as a “second family,” she said she feels fulfilled “pretty much on a daily basis, because of our team. When you send patients home happy, it’s not just me.”“What makes me proud of this place is the way we take care of people.”

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