By Matt Skoufalos
Growing up on a hog farm in Minnesota, David Walz remembers getting a hands-on education caring for living things early in life. When his dad needed help delivering newborn piglets, the elder Walz would turn to his sons, and their smaller hands, for help. The kids also pitched in with other veterinary duties on the farm, from immunizations, to removal of the pigs’ eyeteeth and docking of their tails.
Although it’s not a straight line from there to the human health care field, the execution of such duties “aligns with many of the things we have to do as nurses,” Walz said. His childhood was also colored by a close look at the health care profession from the perspective of his mom, a home health aide nurse, and later, from his wife, Dena, whose career as a gastrointestinal nurse he followed since college. (Walz himself attended St. Cloud State for elementary school education while simultaneously studying nursing at St. John’s University, and graduating with degrees in both.)
He credits more than a few influences for his decision to pursue the profession of nursing. The first is his Catholic faith, and its principal tenet of treating others as they would want to be treated. Secondly, the compassion he witnessed in those close to him caring for others was a formative experience, from his mother’s career path in hospice, and the empathy she showed those at the end of their lives, to “the energy that came with the care” when he worked as an orderly. Third would be the inspirational connection he felt with the stories of Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, and her courage in pioneering the field. Finally, his time spent in youth sports cemented in Walz the essential nature of team dynamics, and the strength that can be drawn from comrades in arms, whether mentoring younger players or learning from veterans.
“In nursing, you’re part of a broader team, and that always drove me,” Walz said. “I gained an appreciation for the special health needs of others, and how to help them. Being a role model to others went hand-in-hand with the reason I wanted to get into nursing.”
His first role in nursing came in a dialysis position at St. Cloud Hospital in Minnesota. Walz didn’t select nephrology work out of any innate connection with the discipline, but soon found a great camaraderie with the members of the program at St. Cloud, and rapidly gained an appreciation for the complexity of the specialty. In the chronic care unit, he built relationships with the patients he’d see a few times a week, learning to observe even slight changes in their condition that could be warning signs, and developing an ability to have “critical conversations” with people who “become like a second family.”
From there, Walz transitioned into acute kidney care, eventually leaving St. Cloud for an administrative position with Total Renal Care, which eventually became DaVita Kidney Care.
“I’ve always loved the high-intensity acute dialysis cases,” he said. “You go into the ICU with them, they’re in dire straits, and then you can maybe pull them back into rhythm. I love really helping people who need your help.”
Over the course of the next decade, Walz advanced from administrator to regional operations manager to national manager at DaVita, adding business development skills as he went. When St. Cloud invited him to rejoin its nephrology unit, Walz spent another 10 years advancing the dialysis program at the hospital, expanding its home care lines of service – and, more importantly, remaining at home, where he could put in some years coaching his daughters’ intermediate-grade basketball teams.
“I had been traveling 46 to 48 weeks out of the year,” Walz said.
Along the way, he also completed an MBA degree, and fell into the American Nephrology Nurses Association (ANNA). From the earliest days in his career, when Walz attended an ANNA meeting in San Antonio, Texas, he found that the organization was not only a critical piece of his professional development, but a bridge to his other colleagues in the field. Back in Minnesota, Walz became a key part of his local ANNA chapter leadership, which qualified him to run for the national board. Eventually, he became the first male president in the history of the organization.
“I love connections and building those relationships,” Walz said. “I did local leadership in my chapter, and always wanted to run for the national board. I wasn’t going to, initially, but my dad’s voice was in my head, telling me, ‘Why don’t you leave a legacy? Do something unique that sets yourself apart.’ ”
“If I wasn’t elected, I would have moved on,” he said.
Tragically, Walz’s father died suddenly of an embolism at 74, and never got to see his son fulfill the advice he’d handed down to him. But during his term as ANNA president, Walz solidified the message his father had sent him by working to shape the course of the national organization during the scope of his term.
“Leaving a legacy, no matter how small that may be in your mind, could prove beneficial for others to want to follow in your footprints,” he said. “I think there will be other men in ANNA who will lead the association in the future; I just happened to be the first. But ANNA has been blessed with some great presidents. There’s a lot of smart women out there. They’re empathetic and they really lead with the heart, which I try to do. I’m just trying to follow.”
Today, Walz is the senior director of women’s and newborn health at Centracare-St. Cloud Hospital, a move he made after hospital leadership invited him to help grow that line of service. Emotionally, it returned him to “my roots of the birthing process” from his childhood; “those connections from the past to bring into the present,” Walz said, “but it’s been definitely rewarding.”