She witnessed that firsthand after her father was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1990s. As a young girl just starting elementary school, the care her father received from doctors and nurses made a distinct impression on her, and it planted the seeds of a desire to give back to others.
“I kind of knew at that point in elementary school that I wanted to be in the medical field and give back like everybody at the hospital and clinics that had taken care of my dad,” DeWaard told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview.
That inspiration eventually turned into a career doing exactly what she set out to do all those years ago. And she was recently recognized for that work by Sanford Health, when it presented her with the Florence Nightingale Award earlier this month at a nursing recognition event held in Sioux Falls.
DeWaard was recognized for her dedication to the field of nursing and her ability to float between two departments within the clinic. She was also recognized for her willingness to help and participate in community events and for being an advocate for patients to ensure they receive the best care possible, according to a statement from Sanford Health.
“I think I’m in a little bit of shock from it, and I was definitely honored to be nominated. But I didn’t think I’d receive it because only a select few are chosen,” DeWaard said.
Dixie DeWaard, with the Sanford Health Mitchell Clinic, was recently named the recipient of the Florence Nightingale Award. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Her path to being one of those chosen few began with that childhood memory of her father’s battle with cancer. But during her senior year of high school, the Huron native’s father had another battle with cancer, and that solidified her early notion of entering the medical field.
She pursued a medical assistant degree at Mitchell Tech for a time before realizing she wanted to expand her work in the field even further.
“When I was a senior at Huron, dad got cancer again, and that was the tipping point. Yes, I want to do something in nursing,” DeWaard said. “I wanted to get my nursing degree to give back that extra little bit I couldn’t give back as an MA.”
It was an intense education, and not one that allowed students to go into it half-dedicated, she said. There were late nights of studying, extensive classes and a needed adaptability that allowed students to adjust to the constantly-changing medical field.
She completed that nursing degree at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls, and came to Mitchell as an intern at Sanford Health in 2015. She has been there ever since. Now an LPN, she works in a variety of capacities in multiple departments, bringing that calm and care to patients she saw displayed years ago when her father was under care.
As a familiar presence in both children’s and adult medicine, DeWaard works with patients young and old. With adults, she works to make sure patients are scheduling important screenings, such as colonoscopies and mammograms. With the children, she gets to bring a soothing presence to kids who may be nervous about visiting the doctor.
For the adults, she stresses that early screenings for cancer are vital to successfully battling the disease.
“With an early diagnosis, the outcomes are much better,” DeWaard said.
She has expanded on that goal by working with fellow nurses at Sanford. They are currently working on a grant that will help encourage patients to get colonoscopies and screenings, contributing to the drive of cancer prevention.
The work she does is bringing her full circle back to the experience she had as a youngster, when she saw doctors and nurses working with her dad in an effort to bring him back to health.
“I feel like I’m fulfilling something, something that another nurse fulfilled with our family,” DeWaard said.
DeWaard was named the recipient of the Florence Nightingale Award at a nursing recognition event hosted by Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. According to Sanford Health, the award recognizes nurses for outstanding involvement in the practice of the art and science of nursing as evidenced by strength of character, commitment and competence that has been recognized by their peers as an outstanding asset to the community, nursing profession and the Sanford Health organization.
The event honored nurses and other health care professionals in nine categories, and about 320 nominations were submitted for the 2021 honors.
— Dixie DeWaard, LPN, Sanford Health Mitchell
DeWaard was honored to simply be among the nominees, but she is proud of the work she does at Sanford Health and that she is able to help patients of all ages when they may be feeling their most vulnerable. And she is thankful for her colleagues. She knows not every office has the closeness and camaraderie that the one she comes to work at every day has.
There are always challenges, she said. No two patients are the same and COVID-19 changed the way she and her fellow medical professionals work. But that all comes with the territory, she said.
And the bright spots outweigh the difficult times, she said.
“I’m always grateful to be able to work with kids. Interacting with the shy ones and trying to coax them out a little bit and making them feel a little bit more comfortable,” she said.
At 29, she has no plans to step back from a role that has been a part of her life since her early elementary school days. And she hopes others can find similar satisfaction with a career choice that changed her life. For students who take on that challenge, there will be work to do and more than a fair amount of studying, she said.
But there are few places where you can do more good for people. She knows that from her own experience.
“Always chase your dreams. You won’t know if it’s the best career fit unless you give it a go,” DeWaard said.