Getting sick and going to the hospital is no fun. But with her disarming smile and sense of humor, Joan Werner has been making it all the more bearable for patients at North Valley Hospital for generations now.
“If you really like your job, you can joke around,” Werner, who lives in Columbia Falls, said recently.
Werner’s passion for nursing came at an early age.
“My mom said I talked about being a nurse since I was little kid,” she said.
Nursing runs in the family. Werner had four aunts who were nurses and her grandmother was a nurse. She attended St. John’s School of Nursing in Huron, South Dakota. She met her husband, Terry, there. He was a bartender.
After they were married, Terry got a job working with famed biologist Chuck Jonkel studying grizzly bears, which brought them to Montana. She took her first nursing job at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula and has been a registered nurse for 45 years now — 39 of that tenure with North Valley Hospital.
She’s worked in every department, from helping deliver babies to the emergency room. Today, she splits her time in the same-day surgery department and is also a pre-admission nurse. Last year she was awarded the hospital’s Plane Tree Jake Heckathorn Spirit of Community Award.
“I’ve cared for four generations of families,” she said.
She can also relate to many of her patients and their fears. Werner is a breast cancer survivor and has had both knees replaced. Over the years, she’s raised thousands of dollars for local Relay for Life efforts — though she can’t walk the miles herself, she makes crafts and secures donations toward the cure for cancer.
She said the most challenging part of the job is “making sure our patients are stabilized and healthy enough for surgery. We really screen our patients.”
A lot of patients often have multiple health issues, she noted.
But technology has made once complex procedures routine. Now people can have a knee replaced and be out the hospital in a day or so.
Keeping things positive is also paramount.
“If you have a positive attitude, positive things are going to happen,” she said.
In addition to nursing, Werner is a diehard Wildcat fan. She was the president of the Columbia Falls Booster Club for 10 years. She attends as many basketball and soccer games as she can, cheering the Wildcats on. Her daughters, Katrina and Kristin were standout athletes for the Wildkats. Grown now, Kristin lives in Milwaukee and works for Delta Airlines and is a physical therapy assistant. Katrina lives in Sydney, has three children, including twins, and teaches middle school phys ed.
Werner said she doesn’t know when she’ll retire. She wants to be a nurse at North Valley least 40 years.
Her advice for future nurses?
“It’s a very rewarding field,” she said. “You see the good and the bad. They come in sick and they leave healthy.”
And if they’re lucky, they have a nurse like Werner to help them.