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Kelli Thelen feels passion and pride in her profession

May 12, 2019

Something kicks in for Kelli Thelen when a patient comes through the emergency room doors at Winona Health.

Call it a primal instinct, call it second nature — it’s a force within her telling her she knows exactly what to do to take control and offer help.

“Starting off, of course, there was anxiety, like, ‘How am I going to treat this person, their needs?’” Thelen said. “But it does, it just kicks in. We’re here to help, we’re going to be their first step, and we’re going to get this person to where they need to be … it brings you an entirely different sense of confidence.”

Thelen was nominated for outstanding service in the La Crosse and Winona areas as part of “Nurses: The Heart of Health Care,” sponsored by the River Valley Media Group honoring those in the nursing profession.

Her dreams of becoming a nurse date back to high school, she recalled, during which she watched episodes of the 1990s television show “Trauma: Life in the E.R.”

But it wasn’t just the dramaticized version of the job she wanted to live out — her mother dealt with chronic illnesses, and she observed visits from first responders with admiration.

“It was always pretty incredible, and I always wanted to be a part of that,” Thelen said, “that they could just stop what they were doing at home and just run out and go help people.”

In addition to her 14 years as a nurse at Winona Health, Thelen also serves as a volunteer first responder for her hometown of Rollingstone, Minn. There, as in her job as an ER nurse for the past four years, she’s on the front lines.

And in a community as small as Rollingstone — even in one the size of Winona — it’s challenging to realize that the person in need, in a crisis, is reasonably likely to be someone you know. But that, she said, can also be a good thing.

“They see a familiar face, and they say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here; somebody I know,’” Thelen said.

Thelen splits her time between Winona Health’s ER and intensive care departments. The pace of the two jobs are quite different, she said: the emergency room requires prioritization and thinking on your feet, while the ICU provides opportunities for extended quality time with one or two patients.

It was there, she said, that she encountered a moment that made her truly proud to be a nurse. Helping an elderly woman transition into comfort care, or the care that readies patients for the end of life, she looked around at the room full of family and felt the deep emotions that surface during such a time.

To be able to assure them that their loved one is getting the best care they can, and to exchange hugs even during a time of despair, she said, is powerful.

“I’ve had patients with full rooms of family, and you can just feel the love, and I’ve also had patients where they’re the only one in there. It’s just you and the patient,” Thelen said. “Knowing you can be with that patient so they’re not dying alone … it’s a difficult feeling, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Thelen said she often hears that she does the job no one else wants to do. And there are days when it certainly feels true, when she’s not sure if she has the stomach for something on a given day, or when she needs to take a step back and catch a breath of fresh air with her family, by hiking, bike-riding or canoeing.

But every day, she understands how lucky she is to be a nurse.

“There are times when, at the end of a code, it almost still puts me in awe,” Thelen said. “I’m like, ‘We did that!’ You know, we’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

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