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Finding his calling

Published April 2023 | In Spring 2023

James Woodhead, BSN, Director of Nursing in Custer, went to college in Arizona on a basketball scholarship. He didn’t start school knowing he wanted to be in nursing, but two years into his education he realized he wanted to work in emergency care.

Finding his calling Media

“I made the decision to stop playing basketball and tried to focus on what I was going to do for a career,” he said. “I started volunteering in an emergency room (ER) and got an up-close introduction to nursing. Once I made my decision, I finished my prerequisites and applied to nursing school and got in.” With that, he began his career in nursing. 

From his time volunteering, James knew he wanted to work in an emergency room. “The intensity of the ER is what drew me to it. There is always something different coming through the door. It’s always changing, and it keeps you on your toes,” James said. “You have to be ready for anything, and that really drew me to it. I wanted to be a nurse first, but I knew I wanted to work in the ER. You get to save lives on a daily basis.”

After graduation, James worked at two different health care organizations in Arizona: Banner Health and Tenet Healthcare. He said both felt too big for him. James wanted to work somewhere patients were treated like people — ideally small-town medicine, but with the skills and expertise found in metropolitan hospitals. “I was looking for an organization that was not quite as large, but still had their stuff together. I wanted to work for a system that was smaller, but still established.”

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Rural Life

James was on the lookout for a health care system that he fit into, and South Dakota was on the short list. James said, “My wife and I wanted to be in the Black Hills area. We were open to anywhere from Spearfish all the way down to Hot Springs. I had been keeping my eyes open for an opening here for probably a year-and-a-half, but I was really picky.” He had family in the area and was drawn by the beauty of the hills, but he was also looking for the right hospital to make his home.

It only took one interview with Monument Health Custer Hospital for James to know this is where he wanted to expand his career and create a life. “There truly is a family atmosphere. You get to know most of your patients on a personal level, you see them around town, there’s a high level of accountability among everyone here. Everyone truly goes above and beyond to make it a better place for both the patient and for the people who come to work here.”

The community of Custer and Monument Health leadership have invested in the health of the Southern Hills community — that impact was evident to James. Monument Health and the City of Custer partnered to build the $22 million hospital and clinic, which opened in May 2018. It includes inpatient rooms, clinic care, physical therapy, urgent care services, an emergency department and a healing garden.

“It was clear to see how far along the Custer Hospital was. I could see the dedication to providing the best care to their community. Custer has a lot of resources and an organizational structure that you don’t expect to see in a lot of other critical access hospitals. It strikes the balance between that small town atmosphere with the level of care that comes with a bigger hospital,” James said.

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Advice for the next generation of nurses

James has found success in the health care field, and his leadership has helped Monument Health become a great place to work. He said one of the keys to success in nursing is being open to feedback. “Always be open to whatever feedback someone is giving you. Even if you’ve heard the same thing several times before, just listen to what that person is saying,” James said. “It builds trust, and they could always give you new information or present it in a new light.”

He also stressed that nursing students shouldn’t get too buried in books. “Really listen to your instructors, especially when you’re in your clinicals, and be more aware of your surroundings.” He stressed that while there is good information in written materials, real-world nursing is dynamic, and instructors will have insights on how to solve problems. James also said it’s important to work on your people skills because nursing is very people-centered. “You either have to be a people person or be willing to work on and build that skill,” he said.

James emphasized the importance of work-life balance in nursing. “It’s a high-stress career. There’s a lot of pressure put on everybody’s shoulders to get a lot done in a small amount of time. I cannot stress enough, people in the profession need to find balance in their lives. If they don’t take care of themselves, they’re not going to do a good job taking care of other people.”

“I would also recommend finding the right place for you,” James added. “You will grow and flourish when you find where you belong. That’s what Custer has done for me. There’s no place better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Written by David Scott

Photography by Bob Slocum

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