Chatham Hospital’s chief nursing officer thought he might want to become a doctor. Then he changed his mind.

CN+R STAFF REPORTS
Posted 5/5/21

In honor of National Nurses Week, the News + Record spoke with Eric Wolak, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital, about his career and the work nurses perform in …

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Chatham Hospital’s chief nursing officer thought he might want to become a doctor. Then he changed his mind.

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Posted

In honor of National Nurses Week, the News + Record spoke with Eric Wolak, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital, about his career and the work nurses perform in the modern health care industry, and some of the members of Chatham Hospital’s nursing staff.

In this wide-ranging Q&A, Wolak reflects on his 21-year career, COVID-19-induced changes in health care, morale among nurses, technological advances in healthcare and more.

Wolak can be reached at eric.wolak@unchealth.unc.edu.

How has nursing changed throughout your 21-year career, and is there something about your work that might surprise people?

I’m still surprised when I say and/or realize that I’ve been in nursing for over 20 years now. I honestly still feel like a new graduate just starting out in this profession. Perhaps that speaks to what might surprise people — nursing is a profession where one never stops learning. While the core of nursing has always been and will always be on the patient, the science continues to change and the art of implementing the science continues to change. One will never get bored being a nurse.

How does “continuing ed” work in nursing — what does it look like for the average nurse?

In order to maintain our nursing license, every nurse needs to complete at minimum 30 continuing education (CE) hours every two years. We need to indicate on our license renewal that we have completed these hours and are subject to random audits. Official CE hours have to be approved by an approval body, which makes sure the course has specific learning objectives, etc. However, I am a firm believer that education (either formal or informal) should occur daily. For anyone reading this that is in nursing or interested in nursing, I recommend that you ask at least one question every day. Learning is a continual process and a hallmark of a great nurse is someone who believes they should be better and more knowledgeable today than they were yesterday.

You’re new to Chatham Hospital, although you’re not new to the UNC Hospitals’ system. What’s your impression of Chatham Hospital, and how does it compare to other small community healthcare facilities?

I am so thrilled to be at Chatham Hospital. I have been incredibly impressed with everyone here — the staff, the patients and the facilities.

My work history has always been at larger facilities. I worked at UNC Medical Center at the beginning of my career in 2000. I left in 2008 for Seattle, where I worked at a large facility in downtown Seattle and returned to UNC Medical Center in 2013. While I have not worked at any other small community healthcare facilities, I’ll say that I don’t feel or see Chatham Hospital as small. Chatham Hospital offers a wide range of services (Emergency Department, Intensive Care Unit, Medical-Surgical floor, Maternity Care Center, Surgical Services, Imaging, Rehabilitation, etc.), and that lends itself to feel larger than the number of our employees may indicate.

You initially wanted to become a physician. How did your journey lead you to nursing instead?

When I was in high school, I performed well academically and specifically enjoyed my science courses. I also knew that I wanted to help sick people. I think this lead myself and everyone around me to assume that I’d become a physician. I’ll add that my idea of what physicians did was just that — an idea. I did not have a good sense of their work or the work of nursing.

During my sophomore year in college I started volunteering at UNC Medical Center, and quickly noticed the level of involvement from nurses in the care of patients. This included everything from nutrition, mobility, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and social components of care. This breadth of involvement and level of care nurses provided really energized me. So, I changed my career path to nursing. Besides asking my wife to marry me, it was the best decision of my life.

We’re a year into the pandemic; many things about COVID-19 have become normalized. Are there adjustments you and your staff have become accustomed to that, a year ago, you may have thought were unthinkable?

There have been so many, but perhaps the most pronounced is incorporating masks into our normal work culture. It’s honestly a practice that I think will become permanent, especially with direct patient care. I remember hearing lots of frustration from colleagues and peers a year ago about needing to wear masks any and all times (patient care, meetings, etc.). Now, its commonplace and I think we are all used to it.

How else has COVID-19 changed nursing?

While nursing has always been exceptional at hand hygiene, I think that COVID-19 has really highlighted the importance and very real implications of consistent and proper hand washing/hand hygiene. It’s such a frequent behavior, both in and out of nursing, and I think that can lend itself to people getting complacent and lazy in doing it. I’m hopeful that in both nursing and in the community at large, we never lose sight of the importance of proper hand hygiene.

Certainly … hand-washing is one of the three W’s … how do you teach people to do it correctly?

At UNC Chatham, we focus on observations to make sure hand hygiene is being done and done properly. If we see someone not doing hand hygiene when it should be done, then we have a culture of reminding them to do it. And this goes for everyone. If there is an Environmental Service employee who sees me entering a patient room without washing my hands or using alcohol hand gel, I expect them to stop me and to remind me. The actual act itself is pretty straight-forward, but we want to make sure people are physically washing their hands for at least 15 seconds or using an alcohol-based gel.

COVID protocols demanded most of us pay a lot more attention to our own health and notions like “community spread.” What other positive changes might come out of this pandemic experience?

I think improved general knowledge of viral spread and the importance of getting the annual flu vaccine will be some really important public health improvements that come from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do you address the skepticism about medical science that’s still somewhat prevalent?

I believe it’s all about having a conversation. If we can provide a platform for people to simply ask questions and hear the work, process, and hard science, including the data, around vaccines, for example, then I really think we can change hesitant minds. But it requires a platform where questions, no matter how minor, can be asked, as well as answered. As healthcare providers, we also need to take time to listen to concern and really drill down to a root cause of hesitation. I also think we, as healthcare providers, need to understand that even after a robust conversation, people may need time to digest the information before they change their minds. We cannot expect an immediate 180.

You’re fairly new at Chatham Hospital, but as nursing director you’re responsible in part for your nursing staff’s morale. That’s a tall order for anyone, but particularly for a new leader in a stressful pandemic. How have you worked to keep everyone going and performing at top level?

Assessing and maintaining staff morale is an important part of any leader’s job, and that can be challenging when a new leader is just starting to learn the organization and their team. But I think just being visible and actively listening goes a long way, even if there isn’t an immediate solution to a problem. At Chatham Hospital, we are also focused on highlighting/celebrating moments, whether they are professional or personal. We have also started a movement called “random act of kindness” where one department does something nice for another department for no particular reason. I think those simple, but impactful, actions help keep morale high.

Is there an average “day in the life” of a nurse? If so, can you describe it?

We celebrate Nurses Week from May 6th to May 12th every year because Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern-day nursing, was born on May 12th. While there is no average day for any nurse in any practice setting, the core of what we do is consistent, and has been since Florence Nightingale wrote “Notes on Nursing.” This includes many topics, but at its core, it focuses on caring for the patient (as opposed to the disease), which means not only the pathology that may be occurring, but also their surroundings, their emotions, and their family and community.

As you reflect on your years of experience, what’s the most important trait or skill for a nurse to have?

I’ll refer back to a previous question about continuing education. I think the most important trait or skill to have is an inquisitive mind. If you want to help people and have an appetite to always learn, then you will do great things in nursing.

We’ve written and reported a lot about the growth of telehealth. What technological changes — those in place, or those to come — are you most intrigued by?

I think the days of telehealth, specifically for primary/outpatient care, are here to stay, and I think that is a good thing. When we think about the time and effort to drive to an appointment, park, walk into the facility (which could be quite a distance, especially for our older community members), wait in the waiting room (with possible exposure to not only COVID, but also other contagious diseases), and then get seen by a provider for just a few minutes, it makes much more sense to leverage telehealth technologies. We just need to make sure that those who can benefit the most from it have the right tools in place to use it, such as access to broadband, computers, etc.

As a medical professional, you know a lot, you’ve seen a lot and you’ve no doubt encountered a variety of different perspectives on COVID from your patients. What’s most notable difference about you and your staff’s experience a year ago versus now?

I’d say right now the most notable difference is access to personal protective equipment (PPE). There was a lot of concern nationally, and even locally, last year that we would not have enough PPE to keep our direct healthcare providers safe. I’m happy to say that, luckily, we were able to maintain stock of masks, gloves, gowns, etc., to ensure our staff safety. I personally know several colleagues across the nation who were not so lucky and had to think of some very creative ways to fashion together masks, etc. As we round the corner on this pandemic with vaccine distribution, we cannot lose sight of the next pandemic, because there will be a next pandemic. This means we need to maintain an adequate amount of PPE in stock and continue to prepare for a similar scenario in the future (i.e. managing a surge in patient volume, managing patient with contagious respiratory diseases, etc.).

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