By Matt Skoufalos
During her first assignment out of nursing school in 1976, Ora Wood described feeling that she was struggling with “the discrepancy between knowing what I was taught was the right thing to do and what was being practiced.”
A self-described idealist, Wood had trouble reconciling the best-practices models she’d learned in the classroom with the lapses in real-world behaviors she observed firsthand as a health care professional. At the time, the dean of her nursing school introduced Wood to Marlene Kramer’s 1974 book “Reality Shock: Why Nurses Leave Nursing,” which coined the famous phrase in its title. The book helped her contextualize her feelings about her chosen profession enough to keep on track, but Wood never fully abandoned her belief in continuous improvement. Instead, she sought out other ways to realize it throughout her career.
Upon graduating Southwestern Illinois College in 1977 with an associate degree, Wood began her career in the medical/surgical floor at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville, Illinois. After marrying, she moved 10 miles away, and began working at Incarnate Word Hospital, a 336-bed acute-care hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. There, Wood started in the intensive care unit before first entering the operating room in 1981, where she has remained ever since.
In a 26-year hospital career spanning a variety of clinical settings, most of them at St. Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis (now Mercy South), Wood has been a team leader, specialty lead and charge nurse. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2009, and a master’s of science in health administration three years later. All the while, however, the operating room remained an integral part of Wood’s nursing career, and her interest in process improvement and leadership remained undiminished.
“I enjoy taking care of people,” she said. “As I’ve grown into leadership, I like developing teams and having that success for a team. Hardly anything feels better than developing a process and having better patient care.”
In 2013, however, Wood pivoted to consulting, parlaying her expertise in clinical operations into a series of high-level, interim positions in surgical and perioperative services before finally leveraging her connections throughout the field into a career as a self-employed consultant. The work, she said, allows her to “help people realize their potential in patient care.”
“As a consultant, a lot of times people have a picture of what they are,” Wood said. “Because of my deep clinical experience, 90 percent of what they’re thinking, I’ve been there and I know, so it helps me figure out what I need to do. I enjoy having those person-to-person relationships as a director and mentoring people to be leaders, and stepping up to the plate to help them implement best practices from a practical side and from a clinical safety standpoint. When you do it, nurses feel really good about it.”
When she arrives on location, Wood works to build trust among onsite staff, physicians and administration; the best way she knows to do that “is by being very transparent and up-front and dependable.”
“I don’t say I’m going to do something and not do it,” Wood said. “Trust is a really hard thing; it’s what you have to work for the most when you’re building a team. I try to build relationships with people so there is trust.”
Building trusted relationships builds teams, and by working through projects with the teams she helps build, Wood works to empower the facility for which she’s consulting to make their own decisions, “and then they go from there to owning it themselves versus us guiding them.”
“That’s where the beauty is supposed to come in,” she said. “We transition that over. It ends up being a self-governance.”
In an ideal circumstance, Wood said she would enter a leadership position on an interim basis and implement the processes she normally employs as a consultant. Having the authority of an interim director would enable her to implement process improvements that have proven efficacy, and enable her clients to achieve their goals quicker, while eliminating the effort it can sometimes take to earn the support of onsite supervisors.
“When you’re a consultant, you’re very much dependent on the actual director who’s there to get something done, and that level of engagement always changes with each place,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to go into leadership because of the responsibility; a lot of people are in leadership who shouldn’t be.”
Leadership also remains one of the areas of the hospital in which nurses are seldom as well represented as some other specialties are. Wood believes that coaching nurses to focus on communication can help them learn to give voice to their ideas in a manner that befits the team-based health care model while also being true to their ideals.
“I think you have to appreciate everybody,” she said. “You recognize more good in what you see, and that does change the culture because you’re thinking positively. Instead of complaining about what you don’t have, you appreciate what you do have.”
That approach has guided Wood through myriad assignments in 14 states across the country, from the Midwest to the East and West Coasts. The opportunities she’s been able to embrace throughout a flourishing career have also supported a 40-year marriage, two grown children and a house full of well-loved dogs. When she’s not on the road, Wood loves spending time with her family, especially their biweekly game nights. And when she is working, she’s able to follow her vocational passions of process improvement and professional development.
“The thing about nursing is I’ve had so many choices in my life,” Wood said. “I’ve worked in orthopedics, I’ve worked in open heart; I’ve been able to say, ‘I’ve done that, let’s move on to the next thing.’ And that’s what I like.”