Deep roots bear rich fruits; that is nature’s way. Barb Irwin’s career with Monument Health in her hometown of Custer has developed in much the same manner. Her ties with the hospital and clinic and the community have deepened over the decades through shared experiences and dedication, reaping meaningful rewards along the way.
She has served Monument Health in various roles throughout her life, but a calling to care for the health of her neighbors drew her to nursing. More than two decades later, she is not unlike the ponderosa pines that line the C ster horizon: unwithered by the storms and better off for them.
Finding her place
Raised on a ranch near Custer, Barb was always right at home working in her local health care system. She has been with Monument Health continuously since 1997, when she started as the director of assisted living. She eventually stepped down from that role, remaining as a medication aide while she began her nursing school prerequisites.
“I went to nursing school during the day and worked nights,” she reflected. Barb became a nurse in 2005 and has been a constant presence throughout Custer Hospital and Clinic ever since. “If you want to really go back, when I graduated high school, I cooked for the hospital and collected bills at night,” she continued with a laugh.
Helping at home
Much like life on the ranch, a small town hospital is rarely boring. That’s one of Barb’s favorite aspects of the job. “What I like most about working in Custer is the variety,” she said. “If you work in a large hospital, you work in one area. Whereas in Custer you see patients in the emergency room at their worst, you see them on the inpatient side, all the way to discharge. You get to see that you have made a difference; that you have been a big part of helping them get back to their best self.”
A connection with her patients comes easy to Barb, especially since they are frequently acquainted. That’s another reward of her role.
“It’s your grandparents, your best friends’ parents, their entire family,” Barb said. “One moment you’re responding to an emergency, and the next you’re helping with end-of-life care and supporting the family.”
Barb said she is proud to work alongside the Custer physicians and caregivers to provide health care to the community.
“For a small town, we have exceptional nurses and doctors. I mean, our doctors do it all. Their specialty is anything that comes through the door. Our team of nurses and aides are a talented group of people, and they are all here because they love our community.”
Caring for caregivers
One thing about Barb that her patients may not know is that she channels her energy into caring for her team, as well. She frequently cooks a meal during her shift and serves the staff in the galley.
“I've probably done it the whole time I have worked here,” Barb said. “It depends on how busy we are — I try to cook every shift, but sometimes it’s too busy and I don’t have time.”
From freshly baked buns to soups from scratch and pot roasts of her own local Hereford beef, Barb’s culinary exploits have made her beloved by her coworkers. Recently, she was bestowed special recognition by her teammates. Debbie Risser, Manager Nurse at Custer Hospital, organized an informal gathering of staff earlier this year to show appreciation for Barb.
“You take care of us, you feed us, you just don’t quit. Your work doesn’t go unnoticed,” she told Barb.
Joy Falkenburg, M.D., stated that she believes Barb lives by a western code of devotion to her values. “I think she truly understands how health care is about the human being; taking care of the patient. Barb is a shining example of that dedication.”
During the presentation, Dr. Falkenburg recalled how when her mother-in-law was ill, Barb helped care for her. “That is the kind of person Barb is. She shows up for people, in the hospital and outside of it as well.”
No one comes and works in a ranch community without being fed and recognized — it’s part of the culture and lifestyle. The people are a part of your family because they are working beside you, so you treat them and take care of them as such, Barb explained. "I just feel like it’s part of my job every day. It’s not something I consider going above and beyond, it’s just what you do for your family.”
The culture and values of western living have informed Barb’s choices inside and outside the confines of Custer Hospital. It is still part of her life and her reprieve from what even she will admit is a difficult profession at times. As far as she’s concerned, there’s “no better way to live” than the western way near Custer, where she said the “friendly and giving” people should be prized as much as the beautiful locale.
“Ranch life is the best. It’s 24/7. Your work is your reward. If you don’t work, your animals won’t survive and you won’t have a flourishing place. There is a lot of that to take and apply to nursing,” she said.
“Everything is your job. Everything that keeps it going is everyone’s job. There’s no saying, ‘that’s not my job.’ You work as a team and the end result is a ways better than if you’re flying alone.”
Story and photos by Bob Slocum