Tamara Thomson, R.N., nominated for nursing excellence award

By Kristy Bleizeffer Nov 13, 2018

Tamara Thomson, R.N., was Wyoming Medical Center's nominee for the Norman S. Holt Award for Nursing Excellence.

You could say Tamara Thomson, R.N., was a non-traditional nursing student: 31 years old, mother of two, pregnant with a third. (Her son arrived after the first semester.) 

But once she found her calling, she never wanted to do anything else: “Out here, on the floors and with the staff, you see such amazing things,” said Thomson, nurse manager of our Neuro Unit on the sixth floor of Center Tower. “Every single day you see people giving their entire heart to the care of their patients, and what we do here is such important work.  Every minute of the day that we spend at Wyoming medical Center is important.”

Thomson was Wyoming Medical Center’s 2018 nominee for the Norman S. Holt Award for Nursing Excellence, an award bestowed to one nurse per year by the Wyoming Hospital Association. Though Thomson wasn’t the statewide winner, she was an outstanding representation for WMC. Under her leadership, Neuro has not only improved in a majority of metrics used to measure patient care and satisfaction, the unit has become an enthusiastic steward of WMC culture and values.

In the interview below, Thomson talks about finding her calling and the joy in caring for patients who need her the most.

How did you get into nursing?

I was a bartender and a bar manager for several years in Casper before I got into nursing.  I had really good people skills, and I love customer service.

I’d never thought about nursing until I had my second child.  During the birth, I had a nurse who was not allowing me to do what I needed to do.  I wanted to have my child naturally, and I needed the support of the nurse, and I was not getting it. It was frustrating.  The nursing staff switched shifts at 6:30 and I had my daughter at 7:15. That nurse who came on at 6:30, I felt like she saved my life. I thought, “This is it.”

Do you have any nurses or healthcare providers in your family?

I had never known a nurse; I don’t have nurses in my family. But, I have always had a big heart and taken really good care of people.  That has kind of been my thing: I take care of people.  So when they switched shifts, she just took over and my life changed forever.  The very next morning, I said to my husband, “I am going to be a nurse because I want to change people’s lives like that.”

Over my career, that is something I have really held with me. I’ve tried to do the same thing for my patients in those times of real distress. That’s when you can really feel it – in those times when patients need nurses the most.  

How long ago was that?

Well my daughter is 12, so 12 years ago. I have been a nurse for 8 years.

How old were you when you went back to nursing school?

I was 31.

I had a previous degree in psychology, but I just couldn’t figure out how I wanted to use it.  I had majored in English at one point because I really liked history, but I just couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do. I loved bartending, I loved the people and I loved catering. I was making great money, so there was no reason to leave until I had that experience. Then I just knew that was where my heart was.

Eight years later, do you think you made the right decision?

Absolutely.  There is no question.  The minute I started nursing school, it was the perfect fit.  Even the instructors would say, “Oh! You were meant to be a nurse.” School was not hard for me because I loved it so much, I loved learning about all of it. 

I think nursing can be a difficult profession for some people, but I think anyone who goes into the medical field has their heart in the right place. If you create a culture – like I have tried to create here on the Neuro Unit – where nurses feel safe and supported, I don’t think it is hard. I think you get to live out your calling every day if you can work as a nurse in the right environment.

Patients on neuro are typically recovering from brain injuries or illness, which can require more care than some other patients. Do you find the Neuro Unit more challenging?

My answer to this is kind of long.  I started as a surgical nurse, and that is where instructors told me I should go. It was wonderful, and I learned so much on Surgical.  I never thought I would leave.  Surgical is more black and white: You can usually tell what is wrong with the patient, and you can usually fix it.

When I came to Neuro, it was like a whole new world opened up to me. The brain is the most complicated organ for sure, so you can’t always understand it, and you can’t always fix it. That  means Neuro patients often need more compassion and more caring.  That is what we have really tried to create here on Neuro: A feeling of safety, teamwork and kindness amongst all of us that bleeds out to the patients. 

We really all respect the brain and how it works, so for us it is not bothersome when somebody is having a hard time.  We understand that the brain is not firing correctly or not functioning well, so that person needs more compassion, more empathy. For me, compassion and empathy are the reasons I got into nursing, so as a team, we really work together well.

Neuro had gone through several managers, and at my first staff meeting, I said, “I will not leave you; I am here to stay.  I am going to keep you safe; I am going to fight for us.  We are going to be the very top notch floor in the hospital.” 

They believed me, and  I proved it to them by working alongside them.  The first six months I spent a lot of time on the floor, letting the nurses teach me about neurology and learning from them.  I think, during that time, I built a lot of loyalty, and we have created a unit where nobody wants to leave.

Do you know who nominated you for the Norman S. Holt Award?

I was nominated for Wyoming Medical Center, I believe, by Michele (Chulick, President and CEO) and David (Gardner, Chief Nursing Officer.)

I think I cried off-and-on for a week. I knew of this award, and I thought of all the nurses who had gotten it before me. Jenea Goddard (ICU nurse manager) is somebody who I really respect, so even to be in the same category as her is amazing.

Michele and David have been very supportive of me.  When I first came to Neuro, I wasn’t sure that I could come manage a unit that I had never worked on before. Many times I went to David and looked for guidance and asked if I was doing okay. He gave me a lot of support for a long time, and he would tell me over and over again, “You are doing great. Just be you.”  That picked me back up each time. If I got nervous or wasn’t sure, that would really help.

You grew up in Laramie and are raising your family in Casper. Tell us, how does it feel to work in a place where you may be caring for friends, family or fellow Wyomingites?

From the minute that I got a job at Wyoming Medical Center, I have been so proud to work here.  There is not a prouder person to work in this hospital, and I mean it. 

I am so proud of Neuro and our stroke program.  We live in a really rural area, with large distances between us, and that is challenging for stroke, heart attack and other serious illness or injuries.  Wyoming Medical Center has developed nationally ranked programs. I mean, it is unique and we are able to transport patients here from far away and treat them just like you would in the middle of some of the biggest cities in the country. I really light up when people ask me about Wyoming Medical Center, because I am so proud of the people that work here and everything that we do. 

What does your daughter think about you deciding to become a nurse when she was born?

Well my kids are very proud of me.  I think little girls love to have a mommy that is a nurse, and it is awesome when I go to the school in my scrubs and all the kids run up to me. They are just super proud of me.  I have a daughter who is 23 as well.

She was around through all of my days before I was nurse, and I think the thing I am most proud of is that she got to see my transition.  She got to see me go through nursing school.  I had my third child after the first semester of nursing school, so that was of course was a challenge with me in my 30s.  I was a very nontraditional student, but it was just so much fun.  I loved it so much.  I would stay up all night breastfeeding and studying;  I think I didn’t sleep for 5 years.

And my oldest got to see all of that. She went to the University of Wyoming at 18, and she graduated at 23 with a master’s degree in political science. So she has her mother’s grit.

And my grit came from my mother, who died 2 years ago.  It was a very painful moment for me, but any time I fall down in life, I look to the strength of my mother. There was no one stronger than her and then I hope my daughters are able to do that with me.  They are both amazing young women, smart and neither of them stop moving. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just how proud I am of the staff here on Neuro and, in particular, Dr. (David) Wheeler and Melody (Bowar), the stroke coordinator.  I can’t imagine how concerned they were when a surgical nurse was going to come manage the Neurology Unit! Not one time did either of them make me feel small or make me feel like I didn’t know anything. We have developed such a good trusting relationship, and it has been wonderful for neuro. 

And the staff here took me under their wing. I don’t know if I have ever been more myself in my entire life than when I came to Neuro.  Within two weeks, it was like it was always where I was meant to be.