After more than three decades of work with Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, nurse Dee Lawer said there's one word to describe her career and her company - thriving.
"More than anything, nurses within KP are valued," Lawer said. "We function in a role that is collaborative with physicians. We have a labor partnership that is very strong. It's one that we cherish, and we nurture. We make sure that it thrives."
Lawer's career with Kaiser illustrates how both employee and employer win when a supportive, education-friendly environment is fostered. Lawer joined Kaiser in 1970 as the fledgling organization's fourth LPN. Today, she has RN and master's degrees and recently made the transition from administration to nurse recruiting for Kaiser.
"[Kaiser] has supported me like a family. They've allowed me to grow professionally." she said.
Amazingly, Lawer had never been to a hospital -- even to visit someone -- until she began LPN school in the late 1960s. She just knew the profession was right for her. "It's something that's kind of in your heart. The people piece, the giving to someone else. That's what I think nurses really do. They give of themselves," she said.
After graduating high school, Lawer followed her instincts and her Mother's advice in pursuit of LPN training at Emily Griffith Opportunity School and graduated in 1969. She continued taking RN classes while working at a nursing home, and landed at Kaiser in 1970 -- a year after the organization opened.
"At that time we had one RN, four LPNs, four medical assistants, a handful of doctors and surgeons. It was really an exciting time. When you think back now, in 2004, and see the growth of the organization, it's just phenomenal. It really makes you proud," she said.
Lawer served as Kaiser's first telephone triage nurse until 1976. She became an on-call nurse so that she could attend classes at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. With the help of Kaiser's flexible work scheduling, she graduated with her bachelor's degree in 1979.
After four years at St. Joseph's Hospital, which has a long-standing relationship with Kaiser, Lawer returned to Kaiser as an ER nurse. In 1989 she became supervisor at the company's east Denver clinic, overseeing urgent care, trauma and family practice services.
She remained dedicated to her education, taking master's degree classes at night at the University of Colorado's Denver campus. In 1996, she graduated with a master's in health administration and business administration. Kaiser provided tuition reimbursements, too.
Lawer credits friend and mentor Rosemarie Polemi, RN, for encouraging her to continue to build her career through education. Lawer has given back to the nursing community by returning to Emily Griffith Opportunity School to teach LPN courses.
"As our nursing population gets older, we need to do more to support education system, so we can share expertise and share our experience," Lawer said. "There's nothing more energizing than a student nurse, and seeing patient care through their eyes. It renews you as a nurse. It reminds you that 'This is why I'm here.'"
Kaiser is working to combat the nursing shortage by focusing on students and supporting education, she said. The company created its first clinical faculty position to interface with the schools, according to Lawer.
As she settles into her recruiting duties, Lawer is encouraged by the fact that there are middle-aged people coming into the nursing profession. She's met people with past careers in computers and administration that are becoming nurses.
It boils down to supporting the community to support the profession, she said. "That's the way we'll move forward. We've done it before, and we'll survive this [nursing] shortage. It will be a challenge, but by no means will it compromise the quality of care that we provide."
When she's not at work, Lawer is an avid quilter who learned the skill from her grandmother. She married an Englishman in England many years ago and has two daughters and a 17-month-old granddaughter.
She has a terrific perspective on her career at Kaiser -- during her time with the company, she turned 21, 40, 50 (she's now 54), got married, had two kids and now has a grandchild. She cherishes going to a Kaiser clinic and running into a patient who recognizes her from years ago. "It's about the patients and the people and the giving," she said.
"Kaiser's still the place where people come for the best care. We're in the top ten west of the Mississippi. It's the place where you always feel like you're coming home."