ROCKPORT — Fresh out of nursing school in 1977, Sharon McDermott landed a job as a fledgling RN at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. This week, she is packing up her office and her plants, departing her position as Director of Acute and Clinical Care, from which she oversees 150 nurses.
Behind, she leaves a legacy of kindness, hard work, respect for patients and colleagues, and the keen ability to recognize potential for improvement in the world of caregiving.
“No matter how hard the day or how big the challenge, Sharon always says, ‘so much opportunity,’” said Amy Krawic, assistant manager of Pen Bay’s “Med-Surg” floor. “She doesn’t see the failure or struggles, she just sees the potential for improvement. She listens carefully and always tries to understand.”
McDermott is a straight forward New Englander, a Massachusetts girl who has spent the better part of her life in Maine, with a cross-over accent that matches. There’s no baloney when she talks, but her eyes are often laughing.
It was the late 1970s, the still early days of the back-to-the-land movement, when she and her husband arrived in Maine, seeking a more rural life. Those were the years of little money but there was high regard for self-sufficiency, sustainable living and a rugged way of life. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) was born around then, as a new generation of hardscrabble farms were cultivated. Many of those farms flourished.
McDermott’s own garden in Union is now “huge,” she said, and she’s ready to put more energy into it, as well as knitting, sewing, spinning, weaving, and spending time with children and grandchildren.
Life is short, she knows, and it is time to slow down and enjoy what she has while she has energy and good health.
Over the course of her career, she has watched Pen Bay Medical Center expand its footprint and grow. The hospital had just been constructed as she was interviewing for a job at several Maine hospitals. Ultimately, she chose Rockport.
“I liked this one because of the people, the nursing model, the private rooms — each designed with a closet for patient supplies, “all at your fingertips,” she said. “And, then, the view. Because in Massachusetts, I didn’t live on the water.”
At first, she lived in Friendship and Waldoboro, before settling in Union. The ride to work has been an easy 12-minutes, which she likes.
McDermott started in critical care, her “first love.” It requires a high level of care for patients with illnesses or injuries that can be both complex and life-threatening.
“I love being able to dive deep into somebody’ situation, and figure out the ‘whys’ — and figuring out what I can do to get them back to wellness,” she said. “While avoiding complications. Curing what they are there for and preventing what can occur with a prolonged illness, that’s essential.”
As she moved through the decades, she has seen enough changes at Pen Bay to fill a career: Redesigns, administrative overhauls, leadership changes, lean finances, the shift to MaineHealth ownership, the years when the community’s trust in PBMC waned, and then the subsequent rebuilding of its reputation as a top-notch local hospital.
The latter, “was always a tough thing for me,” she said. “I remember doing a cruise on a schooner and one person in the group was really Pen Bay bashing. It crushed me. There’s good people that work really hard here. Nobody comes to work and says, ‘I’m going to mess this up.’ Everybody comes with good intentions. Nurses are a very special set of people that want to help you and to do the right thing.”
Nurses are collaborative, she said, and will put their heads together and try to figure out what to do.
Ellen Leone, RN, MSN, and chief nursing office for PBMC and WCGH, cited McDermott as an experienced leader who mentors many young leaders, and allows them to grow and develop in their own ways.
“Sharon is known for her calm demeanor; her can-do attitude,” she said. “She is always up for the challenge and when asked to do something or handle something, her typical response would be, ‘you know that we’ll get it done.’ She is confident in her practice, yet never someone who wanted to be the center of attention. It is just who she is as a person, as a nurse.”
Nationwide, the nursing shortage continues, which means travel nurses remain integral to current staffing levels.
At the same time, the hospitals are recruiting students to fill the ranks, rising nurses who live locally. Right now, MaineHealth is trying to hire full-time (36-hour weeks) local nurses by offering up to $10,000 sign-on bonuses for all eligible experienced Registered Nurses with one to three years of experience and $20,000 for experienced Registered Nurses with greater than three years of experience.
Those nurses will be walking into system at Pen Bay that has been nurtured by McDermott.
“I work very hard to maintain a healthy work environment,” she said. “Which means we do not eat our young here. I’m not having it.”
How does she do that?
“I set standards of behavior and talk with people about it.”
She might say simply, ‘that’s not cool.’
“That or something like that. I call people out on it.”
She knows that people blurt unintentionally. But that’s when she calls them to her office, deconstructing what happened and injecting a sensitivity to the process of caring for patients in a high-stress work environment.
“The general population of nurses are do-good people,” she said. “They want to help, they want to fix, they want to make it right. That’s who they are. They are not going to sit back and wait and see. Do you have nursing friends?”
“They’re a little bit assertive. They are, ‘here’s the way we should do it because it is the right way to do it, so let’s get on it. Right?”
She asks job candidates how they got into nursing.
“Oftentimes it is a pivotal thing; ‘I took care of my grandfather,’ or ‘I saw someone die,’ that drove them for caring for others.”
The most recent generation of nurses have likewise entered the profession to help, McDermott has observed. They are, however, maintain better boundaries.
“I’m from the Baby Boomers, and we worked liked dogs,” she said. “They work and then they don’t work. Work isn’t spilling into life — the separation of church and state, if you will.”
And they are adept with the computer and evolving technology, she said.
“I love that stuff, too,” she said. “In 1977, we were just starting to do things that were cool. I used to have to put together things, carrying a screwdriver and all sorts of tools. I love that jazz.”
In 2007, she was part of the effort to get a $1 million U.S.D.A grant for a tele-ICU at Pen Bay, “so we have video access to experts,” she said.
That allowed a nurse in the intensive care unit to call an expert elsewhere in the country for advice.
“Or if I am giving a medication I am not sure of, I can get an expert,” she said. “They can see the patient, and all the data goes from the bedside monitor to them.”
It was a big improvement not just for the hospital, but the community, as well.
While healthcare has been fraught over the decades with funding issues, COVID, and dearth of staffing, McDermott maintains allegiance to her chosen profession.
“She has led through some pretty challenging times at Pen Bay, including the pandemic,” said Leone. “She never lost focus on our mission to serve those within our own community.”
“I still love the work,” McDermott said. “I love being able to make a difference. Sometimes people are creating a policy that I think will impact the staff negatively, make them do things that don’t have value, and I like to defend against that. I like to make sure that we are giving the best care we possibly can to all people.”
Currently, PBMC finds itself busy all of the time, “stuffed full,” said McDermott. “All of us, all of the State of Maine.”
Because of COVID?
“We have some COVID today, but no. I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “We don’t have any beds.”
As McDermott prepares to leave, she instills a tradition for others to carry forward.
“In the short four years I have worked with Sharon, she has imparted as much wisdom as she possibly could on me,” said Krawic. “From day one, always being a kind and caring mentor. She treats everyone she works with the utmost respect. She always gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, but isn’t afraid to coach them kindly about how you may want to do it differently next time. I know I will miss my trusted advisor as will many others.”
To Leone, there have been some great nurses who have spent the majority of their career at PBMC.
“In my mind, Sharon McDermott stands among the best,” she said. “It is hard to imagine the place without her being there every day, but her legacy will truly live on.”
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