Calm, grace in storm bring top Spectrum Health award to Gerber Memorial ER nurse assistant
FREMONT – To her colleagues in Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial’s emergency department, certified nurse assistant Sara Gifford is a study in grace under pressure.
Amid crisis and chaos, Gifford stays cool as a cucumber. Her ability to effortlessly calm patients and rally her colleagues in the emergency department is the kind of unlearned, natural magic that healthcare professionals secretly all wish they had. To her friends and coworkers, she’s the one who places splints, pages providers, pacifies parents, runs the desk when the ER is overloaded with critical patients and keeps one eye on a patient with a behavioral condition, all at seemingly the same time – and almost always with a smile.
On Wednesday night, Oct. 9, Gifford’s ability to be the calm center in the middle of any storm was officially recognized, when Spectrum Health honored her with a 2019 ACE Award for individual achievement –and fittingly on National Emergency Nurses Week. The prestigious annual award is given out to a select group of employees who are nominated by their peers throughout the 35,000-employee Spectrum Health system for excellence and outstanding work.
Ironically, for the nine-year veteran at Gerber Memorial, healthcare wasn’t Gifford’s first choice.
“I actually began studying social work after high school and obtained my certification as a nurse assistant as a source of income while in school,” Gifford says. “After becoming a CNA, I fell in love with health care. I took a job at Gerber Memorial in the emergency department and knew this was my home.”
Working in an emergency department that cared for 25,696 people in 2018 and serves a county with 48,000 people, Gifford believes in a highly personalized approach to healthcare, a reflection of her commitment to Spectrum Health's vision and mission. And as a resident of Fremont, population 4,103, Gifford often finds herself caring for people she knows outside of Gerber Memorial.
“This happens often working and living in a small town,” Gifford says. “I try to treat all of my patients as they are my family to assure they get the best care. That is what our hospital strives for.”
Gifford is one of only 25 people who received a Spectrum Health ACE – Achieving Continuous Excellence – Award this year. Despite the accolade, she quickly shares the credit with her team in the emergency department: “The best part of my job is the amazing team I work with. They are my family! With that team comes the amazing care we can provide to our community!”
Gifford’s nomination cited one incident of how she excelled in patient care, when caring for a child with special needs and who reacted negatively to oral sedatives: “The patient became agitated, aggressive, and unsafe. After several attempts using multiple approaches, the team was at the point of having to take more invasive measures which included IV placement and more medications which we didn't know how the patient would tolerate. Sara came on shift and within the hour, had the patient calmed, smiling and distracted, which discontinued need for invasive interventions. This provided a much better outcome for the patient and family.”
Gifford’s colleagues agree.
“I absolutely love working with Sara!” Kathy Davis, RN, and Gifford’s colleague in the emergency department, said in nominating her. “I always feel better when she is present in the department knowing she can pretty much handle anything.”
Gifford’s says the training she and others in the emergency department get prepare her to do her job.
“Staying calm in the ER can often be hard as we see some very difficult things,” she says. “However, we are all trained to take care of every situation we are faced with and you just have to remember that. Take a breath and tell yourself, ‘This is what we do, do what you are trained for.’”
Gifford’s true soft spot is reserved for young children and babies she sees in the emergency department. The first thing she strives to do is build trust as quickly as possible with them.
“Kids will trust you if you get on their level, sit on the bed, or play with them,” she says. “They are often scared coming to ‘The Doctor.’ But if you tell them what you are doing and explain things to them, they understand and stay calm and you’re also reassuring the parents that they will be okay. I love children, especially babies, and I often hear the other staff tell the parents that once I have a baby in my hands: ‘Don't expect to get your baby back for a while!’”
When she’s not caring for patients in the emergency department, she is enrolled in nursing school at West Shore Community College in Ludington.
“I love my job as a tech but I’ve always told myself I would go back to school to further my education once my four kids were all in school full time. I want to be able to do more to help our patients and serve my community,” she says.
Now one of those four kids, Brianna, is enrolled in the pre-med program at Northern Michigan University and hopes to become an anesthesiologist.
“Brianna has never known me to work in anything other than health care,” Gifford says, though she isn’t sure if her career at Gerber Memorial had any influence on her daughter’s chosen path. “I think she will do much greater things than I will. She just started her freshman year at Northern Michigan University for pre-med and one day she will make an amazing doctor.”
On the night Spectrum Health surprised her with her ACE Award in the middle of an evening emergency department meeting, her husband, Rodney Gifford, told her he was going out to get dinner – and instead snuck in the back door of the administration offices. He brought their three children, her grandmother Mary Lamb, and a few relatives along for the surprise. When the contingent popped into the meeting with balloons and cake, Sara Gifford glanced around, briefly confused and stunned into silence.
After a few minutes, she finally found her words and quietly managed to whisper: “Thank you. Oh my gosh, thank you.”
The ACE Awards Program celebrates employees and teams across Spectrum Health who deliver results and exemplify its values of compassion, courage, curiosity and collaboration. The award also recognizes employees who surpass expectations to deliver outstanding patient, member and family experiences. This year, Spectrum Health recognized 10 Individual Award winners, three Leadership Award winners, one Community Award winner, one Experience Award winner, one Inclusion Award winner, one Team Award winner (given to seven individuals this year) and one Volunteer Award winner.
Since the ACE Award was launched in 2001, Spectrum Health has recognized more than 400 high-performing individuals and teams who have made significant contributions to the organization.