Kay Herndon, R.N., C.C.R.N., nominated for prestigious nursing excellence award

By Kristy Bleizeffer Oct 9, 2019

Kay Herndon, R.N., C.C.R.N., has worked at Wyoming Medical Center for 37 years.

Kay Herndon remembers one instance, as a young nurse working in the ICU, bawling over a patient who was bleeding as fast as she could pump in blood. Julie Cann-Taylor, a longtime WMC nurse who would later serve as our Chief Nursing Officer, told her matter-of-factly: “Well Kay, you better step up because one of these days, you’re going to be in charge.”

“Julie was a great mentor to me, and I had a lot of mentors along the way,” said Herndon, MSN, RN, CCRN, CEN.

In 37 years working at Wyoming Medical Center, Herndon credits her many mentors with helping to shape her long career. Now, as an Emergency Room nurse and educator, Herndon is a mentor and teacher to veteran and new nurses alike.

In September, Wyoming Medical Center nominated Herndon as our 2019 nominee for the Norman S. Holt Award for Nursing Excellence. The Wyoming Hospital Association gives the award to one Wyoming nurse each year at its annual convention. Though Herndon wasn’t the statewide winner, she was an outstanding representative for WMC. 

“Kay’s compassion for patients and family members stands out as one of the best. She cares for patients from cradle to grave,” wrote WMC Chief Nursing Officer Connie Coleman, R.N., in her nomination letter. “We have seen her hold the hand of the patient who is taking his last breath, while coaching the next patient through a crisis.”

In the interview below, Herndon explains how she found her calling and tells us what advice she would give people considering a career in nursing.

How did you get into nursing?

I wanted to be a nurse since I was a little girl.  Actually, I wanted to join the Air Force and be a nurse, but that didn’t turn out.

When I was 10 years old, I had to have surgery on my feet because I had spurs on my arches. I was in the hospital in Pueblo, Colo., and my parents lived on a ranch 90 miles away, so it was the nurses who took care of me. They were very nice and they knew that I was lonely, so they would come in and make sure that I was okay.

I thought, “Oh. This is like way cool.” I thought I would be able to help people and take care of them. 

Tell us about your training.

My husband and I moved to Casper in 1975, and I graduated from Casper College in 1984 with my associate degree. I got my Bachelor of Science in Nursing from University of New Mexico in 2001, and my Master of Science in Nursing in 2012.

I just wanted more education.  I love to learn and I love to teach and I felt that I would be a more efficient teacher/instructor with the extra tools in my toolbox. 

And how did you come to work at Wyoming Medical Center?

When I started in the nursing program at Casper College, Wyoming Medical Center was hiring nurse externs, or students enrolled in the nursing program. They are a little like a CNA (certified nursing assistant) but externs could do a little more.

Mrs. Harland was in charge of the float pool at Wyoming Medical Center, and she hired me to float from floor to floor as needed. I worked part time, but I worked a lot in the ICU and the Progressive Care Unit.  I started here on May 13, 1982.

I got to see a lot of different areas of the hospital and it really made me focus on what kind of nurse I wanted to be when I grew up.

How did you wind up in the emergency room?

 I worked in ICU for 5 ½ years. In 1989, I decided I wanted to be a flight nurse, so I came to the ER.  I was oriented for two weeks and then I was flying within a month. Back then they didn’t mess around.

How long did you do that?

For 13 years full time, and then 2 years part time.  I loved it.

The cool part is they paid me to fly, and I got to see all of Wyoming. It was really cool because your paramedic was your partner and, depending on who you worked with, most of the time you didn’t even have to talk. You and your partner just knew how to take care of the patient and your patient was your focus. But I love the emergency room, too, and the chaos that we are in all the time. It makes you think on your feet. 

Probably one of my most favorite things in the ER like taking care of a STEMI, or heart attack, patient.  You start their IVs. You give them their medication. You prep them and get them to the cath lab.  Then, their vessel is opened and they go home within like a day or two. It is wonderful.  I mean, back in the 1980s, they would be in the hospital for five to six days and then they would have a heart cath and then they would go home. 

Now, I mean, we rock out in STEMIs, and we rock it out in strokes.  I have been on those Lean teams and it is so cool to see how the process works.

And what about the cases that don’t go as well as hoped?

The ER is a wonderful team and we back each other.  But, it can still be very difficult when a child comes in, or you have an unexpected outcome. It can be really tough for everyone.

I helped develop a Critical Incident Debriefing team, which is really going to help when you do have those bad times. The team gets together and talks about what went well and what could be improved. When I was young, they used to just tell us to suck it up, just get over it and get on with it. Now there is more support for everyone. 

Is it surprising to see how fast medicine is changing, even in the span of your career?

The changes seem endless in terms of new medications and new procedures that didn’t seem possible when I first started. Who would have ever dreamt that when somebody had a heart cath they could go into the right radial artery and the patient would go home the next day? It is amazing on what they are developing. 

A few more years, and you will have worked here for four decades. What has kept you at Wyoming Medical Center so long?

Number one, I love it.  Number two, I feel they have been very good to me.  I have excellent benefits.  I have gotten very good reviews because I love to come to work and care for patients and my team.  I take great pride in working here.  I have been asked to go other places, do different things, but I want to stay here.  And my goal, when I am retired, is to be a volunteer at WMC.

I think that we are the best hospital in the state.  We have so much to offer and, you know, a lot of that is because of Dr. (Wesley) Hiser because he really implemented the heart program here.  He went around the state and really promoted Wyoming Medical Center. From there, because of his hard work and dedication, he helped attract physicians like Dr. Fluture and Dr. Wheeler. I  mean these guys are just amazing. 

Do you think that a lot of people in Casper realize what kind of medical center they have here?

I am always bragging on this hospital, and I am not so sure people realize how good we have it here.  It is amazing when we take care of people from out of state and they are amazed at the level of care that they get in Wyoming.

How do you feel about representing Wyoming Medical Center in the Norman S. Holt nursing awards?

Well, first of all, I am humbled.  Very humbled.  It is just something that I didn’t think would happen.  I am happy, though, and really proud. I am very quiet, and I just try to do what is best for my patients and co-workers. I try to teach all the classes and do whatever I can to improve our care and our department, and it is nice to be recognized in this way. I just want to thank whoever nominated me. It is a great honor.

Looking back, do you think the young nurse who started 37 years ago would be surprised at where her career had taken her?

I would have never imagined me being a flight nurse or working in the ER, but I absolutely love it.  I also had a lot of mentors along the way: Julie Cann-Taylor, Cheryl Rasper, one of my nursing instructors at Casper College, and she was a nurse here on Labor and Delivery. I am mostly thankful for Corrine, the nurse manager of the Emergency Department. Corrine is very positive and always encourages us. Her door is always open. She has always been a great supporter and mentor for me.

What advice do you have for new nurses just starting their careers here?

First of all, I thank them for coming to work at Wyoming Medical Center and I always let them know they can come to me with any questions they have.  The advice I have is just to hang on. 

There are lots of changes coming in health care. You just have to be open minded and flexible, and you have always keep learning.  You learn something every day you come to work. Most importantly, I would tell them to always put their patient first. Every time.