March 26, 2004

Pat Chenger’s focus factor

Featured Image

Pat Chenger, administrative director of nursing and clinical support services for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, makes rounds in the Pediatric Critical Care Unit. Photo by Dana Johnson

Pat Chenger’s focus factor

Chenger talks to nurses Kristen Denmon, left, and Lorraine Patterson in the PCCU. Nurse wellness is one of Chenger’s priorities. Photo by Dana Johnson

Chenger talks to nurses Kristen Denmon, left, and Lorraine Patterson in the PCCU. Nurse wellness is one of Chenger’s priorities. Photo by Dana Johnson

Chenger visits with Betty Ellis, a medical receptionist on the fifth floor of Children’s Hospital. Photo by Dana Johnson

Chenger visits with Betty Ellis, a medical receptionist on the fifth floor of Children’s Hospital. Photo by Dana Johnson

Pat Chenger is a nurse, a mother of two teen-agers and a Harvard graduate.

She is administrative director of nursing and clinical support services for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital; and she is a hockey player. Success in life and success in hockey share one trait — the ability to focus.

That ability to stay focused — no matter what is whizzing toward her — was very important several weeks ago, when more than 100 children moved triumphantly across a connector to the new Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

It was a big day with a lot of activity, motion and excitement. It was a day of celebration, but it was also a day when some critically ill children had to be successfully relocated from one building to another. And in the center, watching, listening, directing, solving problems, was Chenger, projecting calmness like an aura.

The staff that she helped keep calm during the massive move often say she is a role model and an inspiration.

“I’m working through people here, and I work for the staff who take care of the children and families,” Chenger said. “I garner resources for them to do their job.”

But years before she was helping facilitate one of the largest moves in the city’s history, she was a young girl who dreamed of one day becoming a nurse.

Need for Nursing

Chenger will tell you she’s from Western Canada, but the fact that she hails from a farming community called Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan — the town reputed to be the second home to Al "Scarface" Capone during Prohibition — doesn’t come up much in conversation.

She left Moose Jaw after high school to attend a diploma nursing program in Calgary, Alberta. After graduating, she began working as a pediatric critical care nurse in 1977.

“I had always wanted to be a nurse,” Chenger said. “It was the hats and capes. Of course, no one wears the hats or capes any more.”

She met and married her husband while she was in nursing school. As he pursued training as an orthopaedic surgeon, she began to pursue her passions. Chenger says she enjoyed critical care nursing, but also wanted to teach. She split her time between the hospital and college. Not long after earning her bachelor’s degree in Nursing, she and her husband moved south where Chenger earned a master’s degree in education at Harvard focusing on Administration, Planning and Social Policy.

By the time she arrived in Nashville in 1990 with two small children and a couple of degrees, Chenger was ready to begin work that would combine her two loves, advocating for nurses and advocating for children.

Climbing the ladder

Debbie Arnow met Chenger in 1992. At the time, Chenger had moved from critical care nursing, and was working as a case manager for Children’s Hospital.

“I think that she is a visionary,” said Arnow, assistant administrative director of nursing for the Children’s Hospital. “She’s very good at looking at people and finding out their qualities and applying those qualities to where the needs are.”

Over the years the two nurses have been through a number of challenges together and Arnow says Chenger has always held onto her positive outlook, even under the toughest of circumstances.

“She focuses on what has to be done, but she’s so diplomatic,” Arnow said. “I’ve come to admire that quality in her. She holds steady and doesn’t let emotions get in the way of how she makes decisions.”

Chenger moved up the ranks to become the director of pediatric critical care nursing, and then took on direction of the Pediatric Emergency Department. Her calm demeanor and focus have not gone unnoticed or unrewarded.

“I was very fortunate to have someone of her talents already here at Vanderbilt as I was building the management team for the children’s hospital,” said Children’s Hospital Chief Executive Officer Jim Shmerling. Shmerling didn’t hesitate to make Chenger, who was acting as the interim director for emergency services for Vanderbilt, an administrative director for Children’s Hospital.

“In addition to directing Nursing, we’ve added all the clinical departments to her plate: Pharmacy, Radiology, Respiratory Therapy and the OR,” Shmerling said. “All those departments are complex and have their respective issues. She’s effective at handing them all.”

Chenger seems to manage job pressures with grace, and still finds time for her passions.

Hockey Player

Chenger’s brand of focus comes from a lifetime of concentrating on the moment and the task at hand. It’s a skill that goes well with sports. Sports seems to frame Chenger’s life. When she’s not cheering from the sidelines at her children’s sporting events, she’s heavily involved in her own — tennis, golf, and her favorite, hockey.

The Canadian native plays fast, tough ice hockey with men.

Like most families who lived far enough to the north to have nine months of winter, Chenger’s family garden was always put to good use in the off-season by being transformed into an ice rink for hours of hockey.

In every place she has lived, Chenger has been on the hunt for a team to play join. Here in Nashville she was one of the members of the women’s hockey team. She eventually gave that up to play with the boys.

“Our team is a men’s team, but we have two women,” says Paul Arnow, a player Chenger recently recruited, who also happens to be Debbie Arnow’s husband.

“She’s fun to watch,” says Arnow. “She puts a lot of effort into it. She’s high spirited and has a good knowledge of hockey.”

Chenger plays several positions including defenseman and wing. She admits to “mixing things up a bit” on the ice once in a while, but her teammates say she’s never unnecessarily rough, just serious about the game. She also may enjoy the mental side effects, a “Zen” effect of playing the sport.

“Playing hockey is great because it’s such a physical game,” Chenger said. “You have to stay focused because if you mull over what happened in the office that day, you can get hurt.”

Nurse Advocate

Chenger knows the damage that mulling things over can do in the nursing profession. One of her passions is helping nurses learn to better deal with the stresses of their jobs

“I describe her as effervescent and eternally optimistic; soulful, relentless and tenacious.”

Those are the words of Margie Gale, a registered nurse who is a nurse wellness specialist with the Nurse Wellness Program of The Work Life Connection.

Every Friday morning, whether it’s a busy week or not, Chenger meets with Gale and her team to discuss ways to keep the nursing staff at the Children’s Hospital healthy and happy. As co-chair of the Nurse Wellness Committee (NWC), Chenger works on ways to retain and encourage nurses all over Vanderbilt University; that’s some 3,000 full and part-time nurses.

“We’re facing up to a 20 percent nursing shortage in 2020,” explains Gale. We’re trying to improve recruitment and retention by providing support, helping reduce stress and offering treatment for challenging issues including depression. We work on complex issues many nurses face away from work like elder care and parenting concerns.”

Chenger clearly sees nurse wellness as a priority and a very real part of her job.

“She infuses energy into the group,” Gale said. “She’s the kind of leader who makes people want to work. All the committee members say it’s more fun with Pat around because they get so much done. She takes things that people give lip service to as an idea and says let’s really do it.”

The Nurse Wellness Program boasts of several new developments at least partly because of Chenger’s efforts. By spring there will be a Web site; this fall, there will be the first national nurse wellness conference with Vanderbilt as the host.

Community Minded

Her parents had raised Pat and an older brother with the expectation that they would work hard, but that they would always find time to volunteer and give back to the community. Chenger works constantly to instill that same principle in her own family. Recently divorced, Chenger’s two children, Jacquelyn, 15, and Elliot, 17, are as busy as their mother is.

“When we first moved here to Nashville I was involved in the Junior League and the kids did several projects, everything from Jacquelyn’s American Girl fashion show to Elliot’s golf tournaments and Our Kids Soup Sundays.”

But as far as projects for the community, few could equal the challenge of opening up the new children’s hospital. It fit Chenger’s desire to give something back.

“Opening this hospital is a big thing for this community,” Chenger said. “This community deserves a Children’s Hospital. We’ve got talented people here and this is their legacy to leave behind. Those of us who went through this experience know how important this hospital is and we all feel proud of the work we have done and will continue to do for our community.”

As a native Canadian, she has a unique view of health care in the United States. While she sees the benefits of the public health care system in the immunizations and preventive medicine, Chenger couldn’t help but focus on what she saw as inequities.

“I saw people with money crossing over stateside to avoid extensive waits and receive a higher level of care available in the United States,” Chenger said. But while she believes in the American system of health care delivery, she sees, at very close quarters, the flaws within that system.

“The litigiousness of the American public is eye-opening,” Chenger said. “With the best health care resources in the world, it seems that as consumers we need to recognize the responsibility we have for our own health and develop a more realistic view of what health care providers and modern science can do for us. As health care providers, we need to help our patients and families.”

In 1998, Chenger became an American citizen. Now as an administrator with the Children’s Hospital, she sees how difficult it is to maintain the level of care American families have come to expect. She says she is constantly amazed by what can be done.

The options are incredible here,” said Chenger. “I feel very fortunate to be here both because of what I am doing professionally and also for my family. The biggest challenge is that while there is a wide range of resources, they are still finite. Children don’t vote and frequently do not have a voice to ensure that their needs are being met.”

Child Support

“I walk through the hospital every day and see children who are sick and realize how fortunate I am to have healthy kids, a great job and co-workers and I live in a great city and country,” Chenger says unabashedly. “I am very appreciative for all of these blessings. When I get wrapped up in unimportant things, this job helps me re-focus on what is important.”

The re-focusing means she makes time for another project and passion. Chenger is a member of the board for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA of Nashville Inc.). CASA is a group of child advocates and support staff who go to the courts to advocate for the needs of abused children.

“The thing I like best about CASA is that the advocates are neutral parties and work to do what is in the best interest of the children they are serving.” Chenger said.

Sallie Hussey, the executive director for CASA, says Chenger was approached to be on the board when another board member spoke enthusiastically about Chenger’s passion for children and her working style. Chenger’s experience with moving Children’s Hospital this winter made her a natural for what CASA lovingly refers to as the “Space Cadet Committee.”

“Pat is involved with moving the CASA headquarters from the juvenile courthouse to a ‘space’ all our own,” Hussey said. “We wanted our members to have fun with the move, so we joke about the name, but Pat was instrumental in our making the decision to move. She knew all the right questions and encouraged us to do it.”

As a committee member, Pat is helping to put the final touches on the purchase of a new house for the organization on Woodland Street that would more than triple their current space.

“The CASA space in the basement of the courthouse is about 1,000 square feet for 12 social workers, so it can be a tight squeeze,” Hussey said. “We can’t continue to represent the kids if we can’t recruit and grow and we’re grateful Pat’s helping us with this.”

Here and Now

Today and every day, Pat can be elusive. She’s either involved in one of the projects she is passionate about, or she’s rushing off to watch her daughter play basketball or her son play hockey. Whatever she is doing, though, you can be sure she’s doing it because it’s important in the lives of others. “Down time” is a phrase Chenger seldom uses.

Her son, Elliot, says the thing he most admires about his mother is her selflessness; that she is constantly doing for others. He says, with tenderness, that he sees it as a bit of a flaw too. He wishes she’d take more time for herself.

Chenger says of all her passions and loves in life; the most important focus is her own children. “If I think of leaving a legacy behind, it would be my kids growing and developing into adults who care about what is really important in life.”