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50-Year Nursing Career Comes to an End

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Lady in Nurse uniform

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

in any direction you choose.

Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Judy Brueck had been a nurse for 20 years when Dr. Seuss published “Oh, the Places You Will Go.” But she refers to the book as the theme of her 50-year career. The longest-tenured employee in Great River Medical Center’s history will retire Aug. 7.

“When I got to 45 years, I thought, What’s five more?’,” said Brueck, who will reach the milestone anniversary July 27.

(JoEllen Hoth, MD, who retired Jan. 1, 2019, was on the hospital’s medical staff for 50 years, but she wasn’t an employee.)

Lady wearing eyeglassesNursing by heart

If Brueck wrote an autobiography is Seussian style, would begin, in her own words:

I bartended.

I waitressed.

I cleaned houses …

But it was nursing that captured her heart.

Brueck was a candy striper at Keokuk’s former Graham Hospital when the Keokuk National Guard Armory blew up during a Thanksgiving eve dance in 1965. Twenty-one people died from the explosion or burns, and another 19 were injured.

The hospital became a burn unit for patients who weren’t transferred out of town. Sixteen-year-old Brueck cleaned and refilled linen carts, stocked sterile supplies, passed water to patients, directed visitors and volunteered for any task she could do. The experience solidified her decision to become a nurse.

When she was a high school senior, Brueck began taking classes at Southeastern Community College’s Keokuk campus, which adjoins Keokuk High School. She finished licensed practical nursing classes in downtown Burlington through SCC, which was still developing its campus in West Burlington.

“I started at $2.84 hour without benefits because nurses were supposed to be married to men who had benefits at their jobs,” Brueck said. She worked nights in the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit for 10 years.

“It worked well for me,” she said. “My two sisters were in high school when I started working, and my mom was ill. We all helped take care of my mom, and I watched over my sisters.”

Brueck’s sister Paula Willoughby-DeJesus also received a nursing degree from SCC, and then earned a medical degree. She has been an emergency physician at Great River Medical Center for about 10 years. Their other sister, Julia Dean, is deceased.

While working nights, Brueck earned her registered nurse diploma from SCC in 1979. In 2005, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Illinois University.

Always a nurse

You’ll be on your way up!

You’ll be seeing great sites!

You’ll join the high fliers

who soar to high heights!

“From the start, I knew I wanted to stay a long time and work in many places,” Brueck said.

Besides the ED and ICU, she worked in the inpatient Oncology Unit, Home Health and Case Management. She will end her career as quality improvement coordinator in the Quality Resources Department, a position she has held for the last 16 years.

In a simple explanation of a not-so-simple job, Brueck reports Great River Medical Center’s outcomes for specific diagnoses, including sepsis, obstetrics and blood clots, to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The quality of the hospital’s services determines the amount of money the federal government reimburses for medical care.

Occasionally, Brueck’s work is selected for validation, which is similar to an IRS tax audit. Her average accuracy rate for validation reports is 98%.

“I’m the only one who does this, so I can’t blame the night shift,” she said of her work.

“We will truly miss Judy’s leadership and attention to detail. Her role is critical for our quality image to the public,” said Lisa Griswold, director, Quality Resources. “She reviews documentation and enters our results into a tool that demonstrates our compliance with CMS standards of care. This information is then displayed to the public on While doing all of these reviews, Judy provides feedback to providers and clinical leaders to improve our performance.”

In five decades of nursing, Brueck’s greatest frustration is this: “People ask me if I miss nursing. I have always been a nurse. I still am a nurse. I am still taking care of patients, but in a different way. I have to keep up my licensure to do my job. My job keeps patients here and it helps improves policy. We need to embrace versatility in nursing. There are many roles for nurses. That’s my major soapbox.”

Although nursing careers can vary, compassion is the greatest skill, according to Brueck:

“You either have it or you don’t. One of the biggest fallacies they tell you in nursing school is, Don’t become attached to your patients. You have to. If you don’t become attached, you don’t belong in nursing. I still see patients who remember me from more than 20 years ago. They become part of your family.”

Brueck encourages her family members to become nurses, and she is pleased that several of her husband’s grandchildren are nurses.

“I was blessed to have pinned one of them,” she said of the ceremony in which nursing students choose someone to accompany them on stage during graduation. A faculty member gives that person the pin, who presents it to the new graduate as a symbolic welcome into the profession.

Ready for retirement

Brueck and her husband of seven years, Bob, prepared for retirement by moving into a condo in downtown Burlington’s Schramm Building two years ago. Their second-floor balcony overlooks Jefferson Street.

“Our cocker spaniel, Poncho, Bob and I are big people watchers, so we love living downtown,” she said. “We had a 3,250-square-foot house. We decided it was time to move when we realized we hadn’t been to the back of our house for over two months.”

Although she doesn’t like cooking, Brueck enjoys setting a nice table with placemats and cloth napkins for every meal – even carryout. It’s a throwback from working for a well-to-do family in Keokuk as a teenager. She says, “It’s always been my gig.”

Besides, enjoying her balcony – often with a glass of wine or beer in her hand, Brueck will remain president of the Des Moines County Civil Service Commission. She enjoys reading and being with her family, which includes her son, Johnathon, and husband’s children and grandchildren.

Although she’s ready to end a career that has lasted half a century, Brueck’s Aug. 7 farewell will be especially difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve made friends for life here,” she said. “No hugs will be hard.”

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will indeed!

(98 ¾ percent guaranteed.)

50 Years of Fun

After being a nurse for 50 years, Judy Brueck can’t single out a favorite moment.

“I don’t have one. All are very different, she said. “At the time, it’s the best, but another one comes and it’s the best in a different way. They all help you grow.”

Known for her humor, Brueck shared a couple of funny stories from her career:

Judy helps a patient escape

“When I was working nights, I helped my patient escape. It was 2 a.m., and an elderly man dressed in a sports coat and wearing glasses asked me how to get out of the hospital. (Patients look different when they’re wearing clothes!) I showed him the elevator and told him how to get out.

“Later, I went to his room and he was gone, and I knew what had happed. We got a call from a police officer who found a man with a hospital gown sticking out of his pants and sport coat at Lamb’s Diner a few blocks away. The officer said he would return the patient when the man finished drinking his coffee.”

Boss’ wreath makes a nice hat

“Teresa Colgan was the new director of Quality Resources. [Colgan is now Chief Clinical Officer]. The Gift Shop was having an Easter bonnet decorating contest, and Linda Voigt and I took a huge wreath off the wall in Teresa’s office when she was gone. We decorated it with flowers we found on a housekeeping cart and other stuff we picked up. I put it on my head and entered the contest as a joke.

“We ended up winning prize! We pleaded with the gift shop manager to not post the photo because Teresa would find out! We ended up having to tell her.”