Theresa Schmidt joined Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health in 2000 and became the Director of Nursing about six years ago. But her journey toward nursing really began years prior.

It could be argued that her journey even started without her, but instead with the nurses that helped build the foundation on which she would begin her nursing career.

Making the Decision

A Mandan High School and University of Mary graduate, Schmidt also lived in Wahpeton, Hankinson, Gwinner and Lisbon. Upon entry to the university just south of Bismarck, Schmidt had interest in becoming an accountant, a police officer or a nurse. Her family suggested nursing due to the high demand. The suggestion stuck, as Schmidt graduated from University of Mary in 1993.

“It seemed overwhelming to become a nurse and I often wondered if I could be as good of a nurse as my role model and other nurses that I had come into contact with,” said Schmidt. “I think my parents saw something in me that I did not see in myself as an 18-year-old.”

Family also produced Schmidt’s professional role model: her aunt, who was also a nurse.

“She seemed to be able to connect with people in a caring and respectful way,” said Schmidt. “She was a great listener, always putting others first. She had a calmness about her, even in stressful situations.”

Following graduation from the University of Mary, finding a job proved to be difficult for Schmidt. There were no openings in her home community. A hiring freeze in Bismarck-Mandan meant nurses were expanding their search for employment. It also reinforced the commitment needed to do the job.

“My first job was in a rural hospital, commuting 105 miles each way to work,” said Schmidt. “The rural hospital setting was a valuable experience as it taught me to utilize my nursing skills in all situations and with all ages.”

Transition to Public Health

Spending nearly eight years in a hospital setting, Schmidt transitioned to a public health nurse with Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health in October 2000. The difference is more noticeable than one may think. While the job title says ‘Nurse’, it isn’t quite as simple as that.

The focus of hospital nursing is to treat whatever is ailing an individual. Public health nursing may work in a more independent environment than hospital nursing, while focusing more on stopping ailments before they happen, as well as detecting ailments (such as breast cancer and pre-diabetes) at an early stage.

“That transition was actually very smooth,” said Schmidt. While I missed some skills from the hospital days, I fell in love with public health nursing. I think the years of working with individuals who were hospitalized due to illness and disease gave me a renewed passion for prevention-based nursing and health.”

Her coworkers also appreciate her.

“I appreciate Theresa’s dedication to the nursing profession and public health overall,” said Betsy Kanz, the Health Services Program Coordinator at Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health. “She is an excellent mentor and always takes the time needed to answer questions from her staff. She takes a genuine interest in the well-being of her staff, which says a lot about her s a person, nurse and leader at BBPH.”

Pandemic Response

Schmidt has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response with Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Two days later, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum declared a state emergency due to the pandemic.

The public health building was converted to an Emergency Operation Center. Various components of pandemic response such as planning, finance, communications and nursing began working under one roof.

“Theresa strives for perfection in her work,” said Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch. “Her critical thinking skills and ability to think through clinical situations make her a valuable member of the BBPH team, and a strong nurse leader. There is no one else I’d rather have as my wingman as we fight through this COVID-19 pandemic.”

During the pandemic response, Schmidt and the nurses with Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health have found a variety of duties on the front line. They have served as contact tracers: contacting individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and developing a list of people they may have come in close contact with, and unknowingly given the virus.

These nurses have also collected samples from individuals to be tested. Two smaller collection events were conducted by the organization in April, followed by a mass testing event at the beginning of May. In total 661 individuals were tested during this event.

The pandemic has created some long days, being put into stressful situations. At testing events, for example, nurses are right next to individuals who may have COVID-19. They collect samples that are used for testing, while ensuring they are being safe for themselves, as well as the next individual being tested. Being on the front lines of a pandemic is stressful because of the work done, but also because of the environment nurses work in.

“Each of us has our own way of handling stressful situations,” said Schmidt. “For me, focusing on helping others and making a difference in the big picture helps me overcome fears related to COVID. I think most of us in the healthcare field have a heightened awareness as we see the daily impacts of this pandemic. It has been very important for us to pay extra attention to protecting ourselves, our family and friends.

“My greatest fear would be to spread COVID to someone else, but I have the privilege of working with great Emergency Preparedness and Response staff at Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health,” said Schmidt. “They provide excellent guidance on how to stay safe when working with potentially infected individuals. This is a time in our lives where we have to take personal protective equipment measures very seriously, not only for our health and safety, but also for our lived ones that may have underlying health conditions or may be at higher risk for the virus.”

Teaching the Next Generation

Throughout it all, a nurse is learning while doing and refining many of the skills necessary to do the job as they are on the job. It is a difficult balancing act, in which the best outcomes may not necessarily feel like the best, because of the circumstances surrounding the situation.

“I think nurses have to be kind, caring, trustworthy, empathetic and compassionate. Then on top of all that they need to have good communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal. Nurses need to be able to problem solve and identify potential problems before they occur, which utilizes critical thinking skills. Nurses are always pulled in different directions so they must be well-organized, have good time-management skills, willing to be flexible and adapt to change,” said Schmidt.

“Sometimes a patient just needs you to hold their hand while they are going through a difficult time which no words can change the outcome or fix. It is an instinct nurses have to know what to do in difficult situations without always having the answers or being able to change the outcome.”

Not all of these interactions are sad, though. One patient she worked with ordained Schmidt as a saint, a definite high point for sure.

“Probably my favorite story was when a client told the media in a news story that I was Saint Theresa,” said Schmidt. “My family and coworkers got a nice laugh out of the reference.”

And as the pandemic continues to affect the world locally, nationally and globally, it is the next generation of nurses that will be asked to pick up the mantle. By providing that continued foundation, Schmidt is making sure her impacts will be felt long after she is gone from the nursing profession. Just like her role models and everyone who helped pave the way for her.

“Healthcare is a field that has a never-ending demand for highly-trained nurses,” said Schmidt. “We need the next generation of nurses to not only bring fresh perspectives to the field of nursing, but also giving them the opportunity to mentor under seasoned professionals.”

The profession has given her much. And each day continues to be interesting, inspiring, challenging and a new way to learn. The connections created, both through patients and coworkers is what keeps providing that special spark for Schmidt.

“As nurses we work with individuals and families at some of their happiest moments and some of the most heartbreaking moments,” she said. “Nurses form a strong bond and connection with each other that helps carry us through the best and worst of times.”