Katie Kirchgessner ’03 believes she was born to be a nurse, although she didn’t realize it until after college. “I tried to deny it for a while, but it’s something I was meant to do,” she said. Her B.A. in business management from St. Thomas and the 16 months she spent working at a brokerage firm have provided valuable tools that she draws on as she cares for the well-being of her patients. “Having compassion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have systems in place to ensure excellent care,” she said.
After college she worked as a cash specialist and then a margin specialist at a brokerage firm. “I felt no passion,” she said. “I needed to be involved in serving people in a different way.” She decided to move to Chicago, where she pursued an accelerated bachelor’s degree in nursing through Rush University, a health sciences university that is part of Rush, a health care organization based in Chicago.
Like many people in the health care field, Kirchgessner has found that a business background comes in handy. Her undergraduate degree and experience at the brokerage helped her land her current position as a registered nurse manager for Rush University Family Physicians. “I had management skills and a broad understanding of the multiple facets of an organization, things that are outside my nursing specialty,” she said.
Praise from peers
Since graduating from the nursing program in 2008, Kirchgessner has obtained an impressive range of experience. She started her career doing inpatient work at Rush University Medical Center and found the work rewarding. “I’m still in contact with some of the families and patients I served,” she said. “I enjoy seeing people through a difficult situation to help them obtain a better quality of life.”
She also valued the people she worked with and learned from while at the medical center. Of course, she experienced disappointments when her patients didn’t improve. “Whether it was because the patient didn’t take responsibility, or the system failed, or we couldn’t provide the right type of assistance, it was frustrating,” Kirchgessner said. “It’s hard when you are trying your best, and there is still a poor outcome.”
Her supervisor during the first years of her career, Mary Ellen Close, spoke highly of Kirchgessner. They worked together with patients who had physiologic, social and emotional needs. Close said she saw Kirchgessner grow “to one of the unit’s strongest charge nurses. She managed a very busy unit with a calm demeanor that overflowed to the staff during each shift.
"Since the beginning of Katie's nursing career, she demonstrated genuine interest and concern for her patients,” Close said. “Her level of compassion for their holistic needs enabled her to assume the role of advocate which has since become a hallmark of her practice.” Close said Kirchgessner enjoyed precepting student and novice nurses and provided an environment in which they felt comfortable to ask questions and learn.
“One student shared, ‘She has this grace about her as a nurse, and I can just hope that one day I’ll be half as great talking to patients as her,’” Close said. She added, “Katie could define ‘nursing’: active and intentional listener, astute clinical decision-maker, compassionate advocate.”
Kirchgessner moved into her current position to broaden the scope of her skills and see the “other side” of nursing: outpatient care. “When I was providing inpatient care, I’d build relationships and send patients out and hope not to see them again,” she said. “I wanted to work with patients consistently to receive better outcomes.” The position also gives her the opportunity to move into a management role; she now oversees the administrative and clinical personnel at her clinic while working as the sole registered nurse in the facility.
Kirchgessner has received several nominations for nursing excellence and mentorship, as well as the DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses from the DAISY Foundation. The DAISY Award is a patient-nominated recognition. She also was nominated by her peers as a candidate for the Luther-Christman Clinical Excellence Award for nursing and as a candidate for outstanding nurse in the category of “relationships and caring.”
Kirchgessner’s ultimate goal always has been to travel internationally to manage, lead and teach. To that end, she has volunteered for several medical trips to locations such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic through Rush Global Health. In Peralta and its surrounding areas in the Dominican Republic, Rush Global Health has helped the community establish a water treatment system. Surgical teams travel there twice a year to work with a local surgeon and medical staff. Other teams travel to the area multiple times a year to provide essential primary care.
“The Dominicans with whom we partner have made the biggest impact on me,” Kirchgessner said. “Their commitment to their communities and passion to create better lives for others are attributes I attempt to emulate in my personal and professional life.”
Because these 10-day trips are voluntary, Kirchgessner uses her vacation time to participate. “It’s been a fantastic learning experience being able to work with physicians and surgeons in triage and as an operating room nurse,” she said. “I would never have had this kind of exposure to different roles and responsibilities just working at my job.”
An inspirational family
Much of Kirchgessner’s inspiration comes from her family. Her mother was a cardiac rehab therapist who went back to school to become an RN. An aunt and two cousins also are nurses. Beyond a family tradition of nursing, Kirchgessner was raised to value caring.
“My parents did not teach service through lessons; they did it through example – quietly and selflessly,” Kirchgessner said. “Each time I practice as a nurse, I can only try to embody an ounce of my mother’s grace, compassion, patience and intelligence. I know she was a great nurse, but that is not the only way I want to follow her example.”
When she attended St. Thomas, her father, Bill, worked in the University Relations Department, and her older brother Jake was a student. Jake is now a senior site supervisor for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and one of Kirchgessners’ role models. “He is incredibly devoted to serving the community,” she said.
She also counts herself lucky to work with some impressive health care providers, including a nursing instructor and physicians with whom she has traveled. “Their impact is incredible,” she said. “It’s truly inspiring to be able to speak with them daily and to collaborate with them.”
Kirchgessner believes that success stems from adaptability and a willingness to learn. “Every patient is different,” she said. “Being able to troubleshoot has helped me help my patients. Anytime I’ve felt successful, it’s been when I’ve been learning from others and willing to adjust my mindset.”
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