Faces of the Boom: Energy boom keeps operating room’s chief nurse hopping

Operating room manager Sue Erling supervises a team of nearly a dozen staff at busy Mercy Medical Center in Williston, N.D., Aug. 6, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — The day that Sue Erling arrived in Williston in September 2010, she was surrounded by trucks.

No longer the sleepy outpost she remembered as a young girl, the native North Dakotan was fresh off a year working as a nurse in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ready to meet the challenges at Mercy Medical Center.

The first seven years of Erling’s nursing career were spent on the neuroscience floor of what’s now known as Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck. But then the operating room called, and the money was especially enticing for a single mom.

“There weren’t a lot of financial opportunities in neuroscience. In the OR, I could make a little more money,” she said. “Neuroscience wasn’t fun anymore, same old thing.”

Erling said it took her nine months to learn how to be an OR nurse — from heart to head — and she didn’t realize what she was getting into. In time, she learned the key difference between the two specialties: In the OR, one patient is the sole focus vs. six to eight for a floor nurse.

Now, she oversees both the outpatient or day surgery and the main operating room.

Four operating rooms can be run at one time with two to three staff each, and Erling said she can scrub in “if a surgeon needs help or we’re short.”

“The integrity of the OR has got to be maintained. We have an extremely low infection rate. We have to be on guard for any break in sterility because that’s the best thing for the patient,” she said.

Cindy Hansen, a native of Wildrose, N.D., works as a nurse in the ambulatory care center. In her 14 years in the OR and nearly three decades at Mercy, she has seen the hospital weather one of the region’s most tumultuous periods with the energy boom.

In 2011, Mercy had eight surgeons. Three years later, the number has climbed to 13 with the recent addition of a plastic surgeon.

Erling’s flexibility and ability to listen, Hansen said, have made a real difference.

“She brings a level of compassion for our work environment. … We loved when she came; we were in a crisis. She’s really stepped up,” Hansen said.

The hospital also has seen the number of babies delivered by cesarean section nearly double in the past three years. It is projecting to set a new record of births in fiscal year 2015, which ends June 30, marketing manager Dubi Cummings said. Birth rates are high in comparison to other critical access hospitals.

“We have walk-ins (pregnant women) who come to see their husbands, or are in the area, and go into labor on a monthly basis,” Erling said.

She credits vice president of nursing Lori Hahn for encouraging her to join the Mercy team. Hahn’s mentoring is a big reason why Erling has made her home in Williston, and for that, Hahn said she’s grateful.

“We’re so very blessed to have her, and she’s so receptive to learn leadership,” Hahn said.

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