Ascension Wisconsin

Throughout the pandemic, nurses have stepped up in a singular way, selflessly putting their own wellbeing on the line to care for others. As chief nursing officer for Ascension Wisconsin, Heather Schimmers has seen the toll this crisis has taken on the profession and knows it will take years to recover.

Schimmers says COVID-19 called upon nurses to provide a more complex level of care than ever before and to act as family members for those who couldn’t be with their loved ones during a time of illness and fear.

“It has absolutely raised the importance of the role of the nurse and the power that nurses have. We depended on nurses through this pandemic,” she says.

Now that the crisis is beginning to abate, Schimmers is focusing on the 6,000 professionals who depend on her every day to be the strong voice they need to ensure their needs are met. That includes helping nurses through the trauma many of them have experienced. While Schimmers knows she can’t make the burden go away, she hopes she can help nurses “carry it a little lighter.”

Schimmers, who is also chair-elect of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, says Ascension Wisconsin is leading the way in elevating the nursing profession. “When I think about my organization, the thing I’m most thrilled about is there’s not a strategy planning, there’s not a financial meeting, there’s not any meeting of senior leadership that nursing is not at the table.”

That voice will continue to be vital, as projections show that by 2030, the United States will experience a shortage of approximately 510,000 nurses. If that comes to fruition, it will create a host of problems.

"Even during the most challenging times, Heather is someone who will find the light and uplift her team. She has dedicated her life to serving others and influences many people through her work at Ascension Wisconsin and in the Fox Cities community."

— Kathleen Crean, Ascension Wisconsin

Addressing the talent shortage will require many efforts, including working through diversity and inclusion issues and better meeting the needs of workers. That could mean offering more flexible schedules for people who want to be nurses but can’t accommodate a 12-hour shift. It’s an issue that’s personal to Schimmers.

“I was a single mom with two little boys for a little while. I remember how hard that was. I needed all the help I could get to be able to continue to work. I don’t ever want to forget that. I remind myself of that every single day, that I’ve got a lot of people who have a story to tell and need to be remembered,” she says.

Though the pandemic created crushing challenges for health care workers, it also spurred what Schimmers saw as necessary changes within the profession. For years, nursing had remained stagnant around education and delivery of care, and COVID-19 forced the health care industry to adjust quickly and to learn that “paralysis by analysis” doesn’t work. The result was rolling out solutions like expanded telehealth access.

Schimmers knows hard work lies ahead and she hopes people will continue to see the value of nurses. “I don’t like when we call them superheroes,” she says. “I always say, a superhero gets to go home and change their outfit and take their cape off and take a break. Nurses don’t ever get to take their capes off. They’re on all the time.”