Life in the ER

University Hospital nurse Judy Heidlage inspires other staff members with
vibrancy and dedication
Sunday, October 31, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Even though it’s practically in her job description, Judy Heidlage refuses to be called a hero.

Heidlage is one nurse on a staff of 35 in the emergency center of University Hospital. At 51, she is one of the oldest employees in the ER. It might not be intentional, but Heidlage certainly appears to be the “mother hen” at the center.

“One of the things about working here is the people you work with,” she says. “We’re friends, we’re professional colleagues, and we become family.”

The family she’s built over the past 27 years at the hospital isn’t based on ages.

“I have a 19-year-old son, but yet I can relate to and enjoy the 19-year-olds here,” she says.

Clinical supervisor Gordon Rogers says Heidlage does more than relate.

“I remember one time she said one of her titles here is the social director,” he says. “She has an annual party every summer out in her neighborhood.”

Heidlage is used to taking care of people, medically and socially. She has two sons, a daughter-in-law, a “grandbaby” and plenty of at-home training for her job.

“No day is ever the same,” she says about the emergency room. “There is no predicting. We can go from a very quiet time to within 15 minutes we’re nearly full with an influx of traumas.”

She talks with a balance of vibrancy and measured consideration. Occasionally turning to check the computer registration system, she makes sure no new patients have checked in. She discusses the Cardinals playoffs with one colleague and asks about the family of another. Rogers says she knows everyone’s birthday, too.

Like a regular family, those relationships on staff become even more critical during times of crisis.

“We take care of each other during times of sadness. There’s lots of tears among the staff, lots of hugs, lots of ‘Are you doing OK?’ ”

Her voice falters a bit as she explains a recent child’s death in the emergency center.

“Child injury and child death is so difficult. My personal belief is that as adults, we make our own destinies.” She sighs softly. “Children are innocent — whatever happens to them, they have no control.”

She mentions one nurse who can recall almost every detail about each patient. For Heidlage, she thinks she can perform her job more effectively if she can forget.

“I’ve practiced that — it’s kind of a survival technique,” she says.

She never wanted any career but nursing. After graduating from MU, she immediately began working at Truman Veterans Hospital. Six months later, she was in the position she still holds.

“She has been there for a long time, and she is not someone who seems to get burned out,” Rogers says.

“There are people at every job who have been there forever and are just part of the furniture. But she comes to work with the attitude of ‘What can I do to make this a great day? What can I do to get us through?’ ”

Heidlage says that on some tough days, she’ll look through the paper just to see what other jobs are open. Ultimately, nothing grabs her attention.

“I’m not interested in hiring staff, disciplining staff, writing evaluations,” she says in a suddenly flat voice. “Working with the staff on a day-to-day basis is what appeals to me.”

She answers a stream of questions in bursts.

Her favorite part of her job? “Being part of a team that really impacts the outcome of a patient and their care on their disease process.”

The most exciting? “Being able to perform a rapid assessment of how critical a situation is.”

The most rewarding? “Seeing the outcome of the patients getting better.”

She pauses, wanting to say more.

“There are days that you know that you impact lives,” she says. “That’s not saying save lives, but you impact lives. Even in something simple — it affects their home life, their work life, their income.”

Although she has other interests — her granddaughter, sports, reading, being with friends — she admits her life is tied to her job.

“Most of my close friends are people I work with,” she says. “You kind of squabble, but you know that you have love deep within.”

Heidlage is only too ready to give more credit to those relationships than to her own role. She ends, reiterating where she began.

“There’s not a hero here. If there is, it’s not me.”

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