Every seasoned nurse was once a new nurse who had to be shown the ropes.
And if you’re a nurse at Novant Health, Gina Hartsell may have been that teaching nurse/mentor – or preceptor, as the position is known in medical lingo.
Hartsell, a nurse at Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center, has been a preceptor so long that she can’t remember exactly when she started. She estimates she’s been precepting for at least 30 of her 36 years at Novant Health. She enjoys “fostering the growth of what’s to come, teaching people with kindness and patience and creating a legacy.”
She’s been a master preceptor for three years – since the program’s inception
Leading the way through a pandemic
The past two-plus years have been a particularly difficult time to be a nurse – many are leaving the profession. So, helping young professionals get off to a strong start has become more crucial than ever. Hartsell was named a Preceptor of the Year for 2021 – a testament to the expert, but gentle, guidance she shows to the team members she mentors. They include nursing students, new nurses, nurses new to a specialty and other new hires.
“I personally love teaching and guiding,” Hartsell said. “Working on the Med-Surg (medical-surgical) floor has been rather different these past few years. I’ve not only learned a lot about myself but a new way of teaching, as well. Teaching nurses to be mindful of the extra details involved in caring for COVID-19 patients was key.”
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“Of course, it is scary at times, but our COVID-19 patients are even more scared and unsure of what the day will bring,” she continued. So, she said, she worked hard to demonstrate how to put anxious patients at ease and feel cared-for, even when nurses are pressed for time, or feeling anxious themselves.
Hartsell and her orientees at Mint Hill will round together until she – and they – feel they’re ready to round on their own. “I’m not going to send someone off on their own until I feel they’re safe,” she said. Depending on the unit and the student, the mentoring period can run from six weeks to three months.
Hartsell’s new colleagues appreciate her guidance.
Recently, Hartsell was a preceptor for Jeff Griffin, 30, who graduated from nursing school nine months ago.
“She’s like my ‘nurse mama,’” he quipped. “Gina knows what new nurses need. She’s always there with gentle guidance and advice, and is never harsh in the face of inevitable rookie missteps.”
While students learn plenty in nursing school, “You don’t step into reality until you step into a unit in the hospital,” he said. “Without a preceptor like Gina, you’d be lost. You wouldn’t know what to do.”
Hartsell’s leader, Brittany Ables, agrees.
“To learn from a nurse that's been around that long, it truly makes a difference,” Ables said. “Gina has been here through it all. She’s transitioned from paper charting to electronic charting. A lot has changed during the time Gina has been a nurse. She’s able to open the eyes of new team members and co-workers and really bring it all back to patient-centered care.”
A dual calling
Precepting is a big deal in nursing. It seems that most nurses aren’t just called to nursing; they’re also called to mentor. Ables estimates that 75% of nurses at Mint Hill are also preceptors. They have to maintain their annual preceptor education credentials by attending required training.
What makes a good preceptor? Abels said, “Someone who wants to educate, motivate and encourage but also is passionate. Someone who builds trust.”
Chelsea Joyce, a nurse with a labor/delivery background, oversees the preceptor development program for Novant Health. It’s a big job. There are nearly 880 nurse preceptors across all of Novant Health.
Given the nursing shortage and the consequent, frequent onboarding of new nurses, preceptors juggle a lot. After all, they’re still sometimes caring for patients as they train new co-workers.
Joyce said outstanding preceptors do more than complete their required training. They go above and beyond. They take optional clinical and professional development educational classes Novant Health offers. They never stop learning. They might create their own welcome packets for their orientees. “Or they might develop unique strategies to help their orientees overcome challenges they may be facing,” Joyce said. “They don’t just check the boxes.”
Hartsell embraces all of it. “Watching people grow,” she said, is her favorite part of the job.
Hartsell also appreciates the relationships, the genuine friendships, she’s made over the years. One woman she precepted in 1991 left nursing for a time and came back. Hartsell was her preceptor again 15 years later.
One certified nurse anesthetist (CRNA) Hartsell precepted was, by happenstance, her CRNA when she had surgery. Hartsell knew she was in good hands … because she had taught her!