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Our Neighbors....Monica Eldien

When Monica Eldien puts in her last day on the job as director of nursing at Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton this Friday, she will go out just as she came in - loving every minute of it.

When Monica Eldien puts in her last day on the job as director of nursing at Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton this Friday, she will go out just as she came in - loving every minute of it.

"This has been an absolutely wonderful job," she reflected. "I don't think there's been a day I haven't been happy to come to work. Every day is different for me. I may think I'm going to do certain things and then don't end up doing any of it on a given day because other things happen when you're dealing with people. It's ever changing, and the time goes by fast."

Eldien was born in Breckenridge, Minn., where she worked as a nursing assistant at St. Francis Nursing home in Breckenridge from the time she was 15 years old.

"My sister worked in a nursing home, and I wanted a job and so I went there, too," she explained. "At that time, you didn't have to have classes and training in order to be a nursing assistant - you just walked in and they taught you how to work!"

She did all the care tasks with residents that nursing assistants do - got them up from bed, gave them baths and helped with their toileting.

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"It was a real eye opener," she admitted, "because at that age I didn't know they wore diapers and things until I got into that environment. It was harder back then, because we didn't have lifts," she recalled. "We manually did everything in those days. That was just the way it was. But nursing homes in general were quite different than they are now - people were either lined up in wheelchairs or bedridden all of the time."

She worked at the nursing home all through high school, and stayed on while she was going to college, working during vacations and in the summers.

"I liked it right away," she said. "The staff people I worked with were mostly my age and it was a lot of fun. I had a wonderful mentor at the nursing home who was the director of nursing," she related. "Her name was Sister Michelle. She just kind of took me under her wing. I always think of her because she really inspired me by telling me that regulations and rules are one thing, but you take care of people first. That's what you do. With her, it was always about the people, and she always had fun. I thought she was so special."

When St. Francis bought a lake home near Breckenridge, the 18-year-old Eldien, along with an orderly who was 19 at the time, would go out to that lake home on their summer break and bring six to seven nursing home residents there every week, all summer long.

"I think back about that now and wonder how we ever did that!" she marveled. "Nowadays, you couldn't do something like that, but in those days it was perfectly fine. We did everything for the residents while we were out there, plus I cooked all the meals. We'd go on Monday morning and come back Friday night. Then we'd pick up another group the following Monday morning and take that group out to the lake. The residents were always anxious to do it because it was so much fun. We took them on pontoon rides and all sorts of things. The men slept in a separate building that was like a screenhouse, and the women slept inside with me. They had bells to ring at night when they needed assistance. You had to be young to do something like that!" she admitted.

In those days, Eldien explained that nurse aides could administer medications, give insulin and many of the types of things only a trained professional can do these days.

"What an experience it was!" she remarked. "That was kind of my introduction into nursing."

Ironically, the orderly she worked with went on to become an administrator at a nursing home, and Eldien went on to become the director of nursing at one as well.

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"We laugh about that yet today," commented Eldien, "because Sister Michelle was certainly a mentor to him, too."

Initially when Eldien graduated from high school, she decided she'd had enough with working at nursing homes and didn't want to do it anymore - so she went into elementary education instead.

After I was in that for a while," she confessed, "I thought, 'This just isn't me.'"

Then, Eldien heard about St. Luke's School of Nursing in Duluth, went there for an interview and got accepted to the school. She enrolled in the registered nursing program, which took three years to complete.

After she graduated from St. Luke's, she worked there for a couple of years in orthopedics, just to get some experience as an RN and pass her state boards. During that time, she married and moved to Cloquet, eventually getting a job at Community Memorial Hospital from 1973 to 1976, where she worked in surgery and the emergency room.

"It was a real adjustment," she admitted, "but I loved it. There isn't one nursing job I've done that I haven't liked."

After the birth of her two children, Eldien decided to stop working and stay at home with them for a time.

Eventually, she went back to work as a county nurse with Carlton County, which she did from 1976 to 1981.

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"I made a lot of home visits to the elderly," she explained. "We cut toenails, checked and changed dressings, etc. I think that really taught me a lot of independence in care, because I was on my own and had to make a lot of my own decisions, contact doctors and do a lot of that type of work. I really liked it and thought I'd be doing it forever."

An ever-growing family convinced her otherwise, however.

"It got to be hard, trying to work full time and coordinate the family, so I thought I just had to stop and oversee what all the kids do," she related. "It was a hectic few years."

She stayed home until her youngest child was ready to go to school. During that time, she worked as a consulting nurse for Pinewood Learning Center and group homes, doing monthly evaluations, helping with medications and teaching medication classes.

"That was kind of my way of keeping my fingers in the profession, but it didn't really take up a lot of time," she commented.

When Eldien was starting to think about going back to work full time, she started looking at ads in the newspaper. A neighbor lady of hers worked at Carlton Nursing Home, and she thought maybe that would be a nice place to work, since it was close by where her children were in school. Pretty soon, she saw an ad in the paper for an RN supervisor at Carlton Nursing Home.

"I decided I didn't want to be a supervisor, though," said Eldien. "I just wanted to be out there where the people are."

A few weeks later she saw another ad in the paper for a resident care coordinator at the Carlton Nursing Home.

"I thought that sounded like somebody who would go out and be involved in the actual care of patients," she said.

She stopped by the nursing home for an application, and when she picked it up, the secretary there asked her if she had time to stop in and meet the administrator, Larry Penk.

"He came out and I met him and we went into his office," she related, "where he asked me some questions and we discovered we knew some of the same people from Breckenridge, because he had graduated from Moorhead State."

They set up a job interview and Eldien was hired as resident care coordinator at the nursing home and started on April 5, 1988.

At that time, the director of nursing was Ada Walters, who had been there for 20-30 years.

In her initial capacity at Carlton Nursing Home, Eldien acted as a head nurse and did all the nurse managing, though Walters was still here as the director and preparing for retirement.

"I learned a lot from her," reflected Eldien. "She was a St. Luke's graduate, also. I really respected her a lot."

Upon Walters' retirement, Eldien was named director of nursing and became part of a long-standing tradition of excellence.

"I think Carlton Nursing Home/Inter-Faith Care Center has only had three directors of nursing," said Eldien. "When it was first started in the 1950s, I believe it was Helen Bellingham who was nursing director, then Ada and then me. Right now, they say the average 'life expectancy' of a director of nursing at any one facility is two to three years in most facilities. So many corporations own nursing homes, and I think that makes a lot of difference. We have a lot of stability here, and Larry does things differently than at other nursing homes - and it shows. People stay."

Eldien is quick to state the management philosophy of Carlton Nursing Home/Inter-Faith Care Center is a big part of the facility's success.

"Part of what the climate Larry [Penk] produces, and what I like to do also, is making the rounds visiting residents," detailed Eldien. "In fact, I probably don't spend as much time in my office as I should. The paperwork, to me, becomes secondary to patient care. I like to be out there and see what's going on, and I try to know just about everything about everybody - which means I just keep my ears and eyes open all the time so when doctors call, or when families call, you know who they are and what they're talking about."

When the nursing home moved to its new facility in 2001, both Eldien and Penk started coming in to work early every day so Eldien could serve breakfast to residents on the second floor and Penk serving breakfast to residents on the first floor.

"We deliver the trays and serve the meals," explained Eldien. "Larry does lunch downstairs, too, and sometimes I help serve then, also. It really helps us stay informed of things, because you really find out so much just by interacting, not only with the residents but with all of the staff. You become part of that team - whereas if you were just sitting in your office, nobody talks to you and nobody says anything to you, and you'd be the last to know anything."

The team's hands-on management style has not only generated personal rewards but has created an atmosphere of caring and trust among the residents.

"We're all pretty much involved with everything," said Eldien. "If I walk down the hall, someone will ask me to toilet them, just as they would a nursing assistant. They're not afraid to ask for help. We all do lots of everything, and all of the departments integrate really well. I don't think you find that all over."

Inter-Faith currently has 96 residents, with 18 more living in the adjacent assisted living apartments. Eldien supervises a nursing staff of 23 LPNs and RNs, both full and part time, including two nurse managers responsible for all the care plans, the assessments and all the electronically submitted information that needs to be filled out and sent to the state most like to be around the residents.

One of the special niches of the job that Eldien holds near and dear to her heart is hospice care.

"I think that's always a special kind of nursing," she commented. "I remember when I worked as a nursing assistant, for some reason one of my favorite things to do was to be with dying residents. I must have showed that, because frequently I was asked to do just that. And I still do."

She said of the things she likes most about her job, the residents themselves rate at the top of her list.

"I get a real kick out of them and I just enjoy them so much," she mused. "We've also had wonderful, appreciative families, and that's always nice as well. When you deal with residents, their families and all of the staff, anything can happen - and often does. The challenge of it is fun, and I've always enjoyed that."

During Eldien's tenure in nursing, she said she has seen significant change in the nursing home industry over the years.

"Pain management and pain control have definitely gotten better over the years," she gave as an example. "We just know more now than we did before. Years ago, residents were restrained for the sake of safety and weren't given pain medication but psychotropic medications instead.

"Nursing homes used to be people lined up in wheelchairs," she continued. "The way of thinking used to be because they were old, they weren't going to walk. Now, that's no longer accepted. Nobody should be incontinent if there's any way they can be toileted, and so you do that. The quality of their lives is so much better, and I've seen that change tremendously over the years. I think of we Baby Boomers coming in, and that will mean change, too, because we are so different from the folks who are here now in our expectations and the customer services we expect. I'm sure nursing homes will be in a state of continuous change for a number of years to come."

It isn't difficult to understand how hard a decision it was for Eldien when it came to retirement.

"I've always worked, so this retirement thing is really new," she admitted. "My husband retired from the Air Force, then he went to work for Minnesota Power and he has been retired for about 14 years now. I always thought I was going to retire once my youngest got through high school, and then I thought, 'Maybe when he's out of college....' Well, now he's in the Air Force, so I think now might be the time. Before now, I really wasn't ready. Last year, I started thinking about it a little more, but I still didn't feel quite ready until the end of last summer, when it finally hit me. Last September, I talked with Larry and said I was going to do this. Once I said it out loud, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh! It's for real!'"

Eldien said she and Penk have worked together 19 years.

"It's been a wonderful job," she summed up. "I think how lucky I am to have something that I can go out loving as much as I did coming in."

She and her husband bought an old resort on Prairie Lake between Cromwell and Floodwood with two cabins on it, and they're renovating them to have for themselves and their family members when they come to stay.

"We're hoping to do some more of that after I'm done here," she said. "I want to spend more time with family - my kids and grandkids (of which there are seven) - and get to know them all better, especially the younger ones."

Eldien's last day is this Friday, March 30. Inter-Faith Care Center is planning an open house from 2-4 p.m. that afternoon for residents, families and the general public to say goodbye to Eldien and welcome her replacement, Melissa Pearson, who has been on staff at Inter-Faith for the past 10 years. She started working there as a nursing assistant at the age of 16, then went to LPN training and then RN school. Now, at the tender age of 26, she is getting ready to take over the reins from Eldien as director of nursing.

"We're just so fortunate that this all worked out as well as it did, and she's been working with me for a month and a half now," said Eldien. "I told her now she has to be here for the rest of her life!"

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: wjohnson@pinejournal.com .

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