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Sheila Key, nearing retirement, talks of past, present of nursing in SW Arkansas

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Sheila Key in her office at Wadley Regional Medical Center.

This article is one in a series of articles in observance of National Nurse’s Week. We will be posting profiles of local nurses each day.

As Registered Nurse Sheila Key, currently the Employee Health Nurse, Community Relations Manager and Physician Services Representative at Wadley Regional Medical Center at Hope, nears her retirement date of May 20, she can look back at many changes over her career. The most jarring, she said, has been the shortage of nurses. 

“That’s been the biggest change I think,” Key said. “Everyone has to take on more jobs, and I believe that helps with the burnout in nursing. Hopefully, [the shortage is] a trend that will be changing and be reversed.  We need more nurses.”

Toward the goal of recruiting and retaining nurses, Key said, the duties required are being changed. “Administration is revamping job descriptions and the electronic medical record documentation is undergoing changes to help the staff accommodate the jobs’ changing roles so that they can take care of the patients’ needs better.”

Over her career Key has also seen the introduction and refinement of new medical equipment. During her 13 years of specializing in wound care at Wadley in Texarkana, she saw how the use of hyperbaric medicine helped to heal chronic wounds. “It was an adjunctive therapy that really helped those who had chronic wounds to heal. There was a patient, who had a wound for 30 years. Dr. Peter Dingeldein and the staff were able to close that wound, by utilizing various methods of wound healing. Wound care is still very dear to my heart.”

During her time working at Wadley Regional in Hope, Key says improvements to its facilities and offerings have been made since the tumultuous days before Wadley bought it ten years ago. As Key put it, “the community stepped in and together supported the payroll” and “employees pitched in and bought supplies,” when it was doubtful whether the hospital would remain open.

But now she assesses the hospital as a hidden gem in a small town: “Our hospital here is well- equipped in our ICU to take care of patients on vents with experienced nurses to take care of those patients. A lot of people aren’t aware of that. But this little hospital carries a big weight. We have a great Behavioral Health Unit for adults over 50. Our Emergency Room can stabilize a stroke patient and get them on to another location where they can be taken care of for a longer term, if needed. Think of small towns that no longer have their hospitals and how far they travel for help.”

Key was drawn to the nursing profession during a family member’s illness. “My daughter had leukemia when she was four years old,” Key said. “And that was probably the beginning of me wanting to become a nurse. At that time, you shared a room with another patient. There were parents who had to work and couldn’t be there with their child, I helped the nurses when others were sick from their treatments.”

Key then spoke to a friend, Rebecca Barham Womack, who was already working as a nurse. This resulted in the two going to nursing school together at then-Texarkana College. They also attended some classes at University of Arkansas Community College at Hope to complete an Associate Degree in Science to earn her Registered Nurse certification.

After a time working for Wadley in Texarkana, she returned to Hope, where she has been a resident for 45 years and where she and her husband have raised three children. She started at Medical Park in Hope as a new graduate nurse in 1994, worked as a Post Partum and Pediatric Nurse for a year, then went to Home Health for Medical Park and worked in the Nashville, Arkansas office for three years. Afterward, she served next to Wadley Regional Medical Hospital as a contract servicer for the Hyperbaric and Wound Care Center for two years until Wadley purchased the department and staff.  Then she worked there for 13 years as staff and director of that unit.

Later, for ten years in Marketing/Business Development, she was manager of the Wadley Scan, which was a mobile vascular unit that screened people for heart attacks and strokes.  Then she became the Employee Health Nurse at Wadley at Hope.

A typical day now finds Key conducting public relations by correspondence with the community or attending community meetings, such as the Hope Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce Board, on which she is a member. As the employee health nurse, she makes sure that all new hire employee files are complete, and that they have been vaccinated, she administers Hepatitis B vaccinations or TB skin test, if needed. She also makes sure they are vaccinated for COVID 19. There are reports to be completed for corporate and various committees within Steward, the hospital’s corporate owner, along with those for OSHA. Or she might be on her rounds in the area, visiting physicians.

Speaking of reports, Key says, “Our Infection Control nurse at Wadley Hope says we have not seen many COVID patients here since February 2022, but we are still seeing patients with flu in May, which has normally ended by this time of the year. We have had a couple of nurses who experienced long COVID, which affected their lungs and/or heart. Therefore, they took longer to recuperate, and came back with a lighter schedule for a while.” She urges everyone to talk with their doctor about getting their COVID 19 vaccinations.

Meanwhile, as she has observed in her capacity as Physician Assistant, the local doctors that she has visited are feeling tired, with the cause obvious. “Hope and Prescott physicians are looking for a partner or a Nurse Practioner to join them. Lewisville has just recently had a new Nurse Practioner to start, so that’s helped them. But Prescott and Hope have really been trying to recruit and have not been successful,” she said.

But, to repeat, nurses are needed, too. Key described the character traits of a good nurse: “I think [it has to be] someone who’s very knowledgeable in the nursing field, skilled/competent in their work as a nurse, is a caring person who puts others first.” When Key retires in a few days, the area will be another good nurse down.

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