New L+M chief nursing officer ready to wear many hats after move to New London
Lawrence + Memorial Hospital's new chief nursing officer has been a nurse for a long time.
"I did start my career at a really early age," Caren Lewis said last week, pulling out a photograph of herself at age 2, dressed as a candy striper and pretending to inject her mother with a fake syringe. "That was my first time to put on my nurse's cap."
After a career working in community hospitals and most recently at the 926-bed MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. — one of 10 hospitals in the MedStar system in the Washington/Baltimore area — Lewis has settled on L+M to continue her career in New England.
"It's not lost on me at all how lucky I am," Lewis said in an interview in her office, decorated with letters that spell out "nursing" on the wall and all the paperwork that comes along with nearly four weeks in a new job. "I haven't ever known anything else. I feel just as passionate about it."
Her job is broad: the chief nursing officer oversees nursing and patient care in all the hospital's inpatient care areas, pre-operation services, the emergency department, respiratory care and hospital affiliates.
She was planning an eventual retirement in New England, where she said she often vacationed as a child, when a recruiter called and offered her a chance at the job. Among many other "hats," Lewis said one of her focuses will be on helping nursing staff at the hospital and its affiliates develop progress in their careers.
"One of my passions is professional development of the nurses, and really growing them," Lewis said.
While southeastern Connecticut doesn't see the severe labor shortages affecting hospital nursing staffs in other parts of the country, development can be difficult when younger nurses move around so much instead of staying in one hospital or office for their entire careers, as nurses of prior generations did.
"We have five generations in the workforce," she said. "So what can we do to keep those five generations here and keep them in the workforce?"
Lewis said she sees an opportunity to encourage nurses who leave to come back to L+M eventually.
"The focus has always been on, 'recruit nurses, recruit nurses, recruit nurses,' 'retain nurses, retain nurses, retain nurses,'" Lewis said. "We still have to do that, because we want longevity in the workforce. But we're having to be open minded and be aware of the fact that the generations Y and Z are more mobile than we were."
"They're quick to move around," she said, but "we've got a good chance of them coming back with us."
Lewis said the role of the chief nursing officer emerged several decades ago as leaders in health care realized they wanted executives with clinical experience speaking for patients and medical staff.
"I'm there to help ... cheerlead the nurses, inspire them, encourage them to do all that we can do from that patient care perspective, hear what their ideas are, (and) advocate for them," she said. "You've got your clinical hat on, but you're also part problem-solver, part architect ... it's like a little bit of all of it."
Lewis also will oversee the gradual enmeshing of L+M policies with the policies of the Yale New Haven Health system, a process that began when L+M joined the hospital system in 2016 and continues even now, she said. Some L+M nurses serve on a committee with staff at other Yale New Haven Health hospitals overseeing the integration of the system's policies on everything from medical procedures to rules about visitors in hospital departments.
"It's for each hospital to interpret to their own patient populations, their own care delivery style," Lewis said. "You have local languages, local flavor."
Nursing union President Lisa D'Abrosca said Lewis has been "a breath of fresh air" after what she described as a strained relationship with her predecessor, Lauren Williams. Williams and former hospital CEO Bruce Cummings were at L+M during the 2013 strike of union nurses and technicians over the loss of seven union jobs when the hospital moved the obstetrics and gynecology clinic services and outpatient mental health services out of the main hospital to affiliated private practices.
"Caren seems really open," D'Abrosca said. "If she's just open to what folks have to say, I think that's going to be an improvement."
Karen Buck, the hospital's associate chief nursing officer, served in an interim capacity as chief nursing officer during the six months after Williams left and Lewis arrived at L+M in March.
Lewis said she plans to bring a tradition of monthly town hall-style meetings that have "no agenda" so she can hear from hospital staff.
"To me, it's being consistent, it's being credible, it's being transparent, it's being ready to listen," she said. "Everybody wants to be heard."
She said she appreciates what she called a strong sense of community at L+M among the staff and patients.
"I like what I see," she said.
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