by Scott Tedrick – Advocate Tribune
New Granite Falls Director Jana Berends-Sletten can recall a number of occasions in the recent past, when her predecessor and mentor Gene Hughes would follow up a teaching moment with the emphasis that, “I’m going to be done here soon and this is going to be yours. So you gotta pay attention to this, you have to understand this.”
“I never thought that would be the case,” Berends recalled.
For several weeks now, Berends-Sletten, a certified EMT, paramedic and nurse has been serving in the role that Hughes uniquely patterned for this community preceding the 64-year-old’s death while vacationing in Mexico this February.
Arriving to the community in 2001, Hughes was tasked with redesigning local ambulance services by hospital administration. In the span of just 13 years he would totally transform the service from a 6-8 member volunteer Basic Life Support (BLS) crew, to a 40 member Advanced Life Support (ALS) service viewed as one of the most cohesive, efficient and effective ambulance squads operating in the state.
As one of the 6-8 members from the BLS crew in existence before his arrival, Berends-Sletten had the opportunity to learn from Hughes during the duration of his time––and in the last years of his life he looked to train her as his heir apparent.
Berends-Sletten training for the post, however, would transcend all these timelines with hindsight’s perspective revealing only now how a multitude of life experiences, from a lost scholarship to a stroke, have prepared her to fill some of the largest, most admirable shoes she’s ever known.
Intro to the ambulance
Born and raised in Granite Falls, Berends-Sletten is married to her husband, Brett, with whom she is raising two children. She is also the sister to County Commissioner and Bootlegger’s Supper Club owner John Berends. Their sister, Jennifer, resides in Kandiyohi.
A standout athlete in high school, Berends-Sletten originally attended Southwest Minnesota State University on a softball scholarship. There, she was studying pre-med until a torn rotator cuff served to end her softball career and also result in the loss of her scholarship.
Facing a hard reality, she would pick herself up and elect to enroll in X-ray school, in preparation to become an X-ray technician. Living in southeast Minneapolis at the time, she said it was an eye opening experience. Nevertheless, the pull of home would bring her back to the riverside city of her birth.
Finding work in the purchasing department of materials and management at the Granite Falls Hospital, Berends-Sletten said that introduction into the ambulance service came through hospital Respiratory Therapist Dennis Bauman, who asked if she had interest in taking an Emergency Medical Training (EMT) course.
“I said, I want absolutely nothing to do with that. Nope,” recalled Berends-Sletten.
To which Bauman replied, “Well, Jana, we only have five members and we need somebody for the community.”
Always moved to acquiesce when it comes to matters of the community, “I took the course.” Berends-Sletten said––the end result being that “I loved every second of it. It just seemed I couldn’t get enough.”
With Hughes arrival in 2001 came a heightened perception of community needs alongside an indomitable passion to alleviate them. Noting her shared passion for the work, he too would challenge Berends-Sletten, this time to become a paramedic.
Here, a brief period of reluctance would again pave the way for Berends-Sletten to step up and meet the challenge. In the years since, she gained the self-motivation to earn a nursing degree in 2007, and in 2011 she would wrap up her bachelor’s degree.
“It’s like a rubber band,” Berends-Sletten says as she looks back upon it all. “You try and go away and stretch and learn things, and then all of it sudden snaps back and you find yourself back at your start.”
Everything she knows
As Hughes’ long-time sidekick, Berends-Sletten credits her mentor with making her see the full potential of their positions, as well as the sort of smarts, drive and inhuman endurance it takes to reach it.
“He basically taught me everything I know, and then some,” she said.
And while the man was certainly light-hearted and fun, Berends also said that working for Hughes was no cake walk.
“He was hard. He was hard on us,” she said. “He taught us you don’t learn anything from your successes, you learn from your mistakes. We definitely learned from out mistakes.”
While in many context such demands can lead to resentment, in Hughes’ case, every way that he pushed his staff, he also pushed himself––only harder. And with that he set the tone for the squad and called forth the requisite respect of a leader who truly leads by example.
“He taught us a lot about relationship building and teamwork and what it takes to have a type of service like this in the community. It’s a lot of blood sweat and tears. Your family life gets put on hold, unfortunately, and they kind of take a backseat. But it’s all for the best of our patients,” she continued. “It’s heartening knowing that if it were my family, there us no other ambulance service that I would want more to take care of them.”
Asked about what Gene saw in her that made her so ideal for the position, Berends-Sletten did not hesitate to say, “Gene saw the passion that I have… The passion for the community. The passion for my team. The passion for the job in general,” she said. “You’re either in this job 110 percent or your not, and he saw that drive and strong work ethic that my parents raised all us kids with.”
In addition, Hughes recognized Berends-Sletten’s critical thinking skills and the ability to utilize them regardless of the level of tumult surrounding any given situation.
“If something isn’t working I’m able to already have plan ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ in my head and also am able to function through the moment’s intensity.”
In her short time as director, Berends-Sletten has also followed Hughes’ example as a visionary––able to spot needs in the community and consequently develop new programs, initiatives, or positions that can help the ambulance to improve its position as a leader in viable and effective rural health care.
Specifically, she has sought a grant for a “community paramedic position,” which would help fill the gap in service provision to members of the population facing circumstances that cause them that fall outside of the present care model.
In addition, the ambulance continues to raise money in support of new facilities that are more in-line with the vastly expanded operation, and is working with the hospital on a variety of measures that would reach individuals with preemptive health care provisions that help keep down emergency room admittance.
In the future, Berends said a stakeholder group will be together that will look at how to meet some of these needs of both the local and surrounding area communities.
A unique community, a fire forged faith
Considering the entirety of her life experience, the past year might have been most the difficult for Berends-Sletten.
It was the Monday after the 2014 Western Fest when Berends-Sletten, while coaching her daughter’s softball game, noticed that she was unable to see out of her right eye. Following a CT-scan she would be diagnosed with a migraine headache, only to find out later that it had actually been a stroke.
With debilitated function and movement, she would spend the the next three to four months undergoing Occupational and Speech Therapy at the Granite Falls Hospital, eventually regaining her former capacities.
“They did a phenomenal job with me and all the patients they see,” said Berends-Sletten of the two therapy crews. “The whole experience has been a reality check that those of us working healthcare are not invincible. I was 36-years old at the time and not a lot of people are given a second chance.”
If there was a silver lining, it was that the experience provided Berends-Sletten with an expanded understanding of what those who suffer such maladies experience.The increase in empathy and compassion, she said, serves to increase her drive and better connect her with an area community that has managed to transcend a remarkable level of adversity.
“Something we’ve noticed at the ambulance, is the amount of tragedy that we’ve gone through in the last six months,” she said. “In years past, I remember we’d have one traumatic accident where we’d have a teenager killed., but then we’d have some time to get over it and kind of process it. But the loss the community has had to reconcile lately, is almost too much to bear. However, you feel the support, you feel the compassion of community that people have for all our health care professionals.
Moving forward, Berends-Sletten said she is excited to lead the ambulance alongside Assistant Ambulance Director, RN and Paramedic, Jen Jaeger, in collaboration with hospital staff and administration that she considers second to none.
“Everybody has the same focus,” she noted. “We want to do our best. We want to do our best for our community. We all have families here and it’s such a tight knit community that––I don’t even know how to describe it––it’s unique. It really is. All across the board.”
Losing her mentor, so many community members and, for a time, the quality of her life has certainly forged Berends-Sletten under the extremist of circumstances––but, then again, perhaps that’s what it takes to become the Granite Falls Ambulance Director.
“The biggest piece for me in my life is that I have such a strong faith,” she said. “I know that things do happen for a reason and that we’re never given more than we can take.”