By Matt Skoufalos
From her public school nurses to her cheerleading coach to her pediatrician, Melissa Mordecai said she’s always had very positive interactions with health care professionals. When it was her time to choose a career, Mordecai, who started college as a business administration major, said the choice to pivot into nursing helped her find a vocation that’s given her room to grow.
“I wouldn’t change the past 16 years for anything,” she said. “I’ve been very proud of the teams that I’ve been on or the accomplishments that they have.”
“I’m always asked what made me go to nursing school, and to be quite honest, it was more of a necessity than it was my calling,” Mordecai said. “In hindsight, all my role models in life were nurses; I didn’t realize until I went into nursing who those people were.”
In 16 years as a nursing professional, Mordecai has gone from a college graduate finding her rhythm in a fledgling career into a master’s-degreed leadership role in a large, regional health system. She began as an ER nurse at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey; a position into which she grew from being an ER technician there during nursing school. Mordecai said her fondest recollections of the job involved her responsibilities for “taking care of people when they really needed you the most,” but the emergency room also was a valuable vocational stepping stone. When the opportunity to grow into additional positions in the facility arose, Mordecai began working as a clinical analyst, helping her department make the transition to an electronic health record system. In almost no time, she’d parlayed a weekly, volunteer committee appointment into a full-time position.
“I haven’t been in the ER in the last eight years, but I still relate to that as part of my identity,” Mordecai said. “Any opportunity I had to make a difference, I participated. I’m a lifelong learner; I’m always looking for opportunities to learn something new.”
“I embrace change,” she said. “It’s my drive and my motivation. When I’m taking care of them, I want people to feel confident and trust that I’m helping do what’s best for them.”
Eventually, Mordecai’s embracing attitude toward change led her to a position with a Staten Island hospital. More than an opportunity to grow her management experience, Mordecai saw it as a chance to learn how a different health system approached patient care. Unexpectedly, it proved to be the place where she met Russell, an emergency room doctor who would become her husband. The couple relocated to southern New Jersey, and Melissa took a job at a private practice office in Philadelphia. While Russell studied to be an orthopedist, she took the opportunity to pursue her nurse practitioner’s certificate. Looking back on it, Melissa Mordecai remembered, “it was the right time to be busy.”
“He was busy studying, I was studying; it complemented each other,” she said.
Eventually, the couple had children, and Melissa decided she wanted to work closer to home. In 2012, she left the private practice office to join the Kennedy Health System in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, as the nurse practitioner for its Acute Care for Elders (ACE) unit, a geriatric floor of specialized care. Kennedy eventually merged with the Thomas Jefferson University Health System, and Mordecai was named Director of Post-Acute Care Integration at Jefferson Health. She’s spent the past year in the role.
Administratively, she is called on to deal with the health system’s post-acute partners, including long-term and home care providers, to help patients after they’re discharged from the hospital. Her chief task is to help clinically integrate their care needs at home to make sure the patients don’t require re-admittance. Despite her oversight responsibilities, Mordecai makes it a point to see patients eight hours a week in a nursing home environment to maintain her clinical skills and focus on patient care. After nearly 17 years on the job, she’s seen those in her care present with ever more complex cases.
“They have more resource needs,” she said; “things we take for granted. [For example], sometimes nurses go for home visits and the patients don’t have food in the fridge. As the population is aging, they’re getting more and more complex, and they have more social needs on top of their chronic medical conditions, which are also complex.”
In dealing with a geriatric population, Mordecai has become comfortable brokering uncomfortable conversations around those complicated cases. Where some families may struggle with “having the goals-of-care conversation or the end-of-life conversation,” as she puts it, Mordecai has an ability to connect with her patients and their caregivers about developing the most comfortable course of care delivery for their needs. It’s an area of strength she’s had the opportunity to cultivate personally thanks to her advanced professional training, which is something she stresses with younger nurses.
“I think personal development is important,” Mordecai said. “The hospital has me on a leadership course. I do pay attention and I do read, just to improve my skills as a leader, and building the right team. We have a good foundation but we need more people. Nursing may not be the calling for everybody, but it is still a great opportunity, and I wish young people could see that advantage.”