Theresa Larson received a cancer diagnosis while helping to treat cancer patients at Sanford Health.
She’s doing well now. In fact, she is the new vice president of nursing and clinical services at Sanford Medical Center Fargo. Here, she recounts her diverse 30-year career with the organization, and her focus on high reliability, nurse recruitment and retention, and service in her new role.
Early life, education and early career
Theresa Larson was born and raised in Sidney, Montana, a small town in the northeast, just a few miles from the North Dakota border. Her parents worked at an electrical company founded by her grandfather and his brother.
Larson earned her associate degree as an LPN from the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, a small town in the state’s southeast corner.
Out of school, Larson received her first job on the medical surgical floor of St. Luke’s, part of the MeritCare Health System that would eventually merge with Sanford Health to become Sanford Fargo.
Larson spent 10 years working on that floor, making advancements along the way. She earned her BS in nursing at this time from North Dakota State University before her last year on the floor while also cross-training in the intensive care unit.
Transition to oncology
After working in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) for a couple of years, Larson transferred to the Roger Maris Cancer Center, where she was an RN in the infusion center, learning to administer chemotherapy.
“One of the things that I kind of am known for is just jumping in and doing what is needed,” Larson said.
One day, the medical oncology team was short a phone nurse, and Larson added the position to her responsibilities. From there, she split her time between the infusion center and serving as a medical oncology phone nurse.
Shortly thereafter, she applied and was given the role of manager of the infusion center. It was a little over two years later that MeritCare and Sanford Health merged, and Larson became a director, adding accountability and gastrointestinal and pulmonary clinics to her portfolio. A year later she also assumed the infectious disease clinic.
From there, she transitioned back to work fully at Roger Maris Cancer Center, adding on the nurse navigator, survivorship and other programs to her portfolio. At the same time, she completed her master’s in nurse administration through the University of Mary in Bismarck.
“The other piece in my career that has really been monumental — of course, the Roger Maris Cancer Center and the opportunity to be given a leadership role in the infusion center and learning how to advance and grow as a leader through that great team was pivotal for me — but also the lung nodule clinic was implemented when I led the nurse navigator team. It has really shown itself to identify cancers that may have been missed, or at least identify them earlier,” Larson said. “I hold that pretty high on my list of accomplishments with that group.”
Both Theresa and her husband, Jim, are cancer survivors. Jim was diagnosed around 1999, at age 30, and Theresa received her diagnosis seven years later, in 2006.
“I think that experience is what keeps me focused on living in the moment. I think that is the point when you see that you really don’t know what the future holds,” Larson said.
Just after her diagnosis, Larson was promoted to manager of the infusion center at Roger Maris Cancer Center and said she was “wrapped in support from that team.”
Larson feels blessed that she has now been cancer-free for 13 years.
“I also feel that my cancer journey has given me the perspective that we don’t wait for tomorrow and we should push the limit to see where we can go in this lifetime because it’s a precious life to hold and to have.”
Taking on new roles
Four years ago, Larson received a promotion to director of inpatient services for endoscopy and gastrointestinal, moving from oncology into the procedural world. At that time, she also was asked to take on reproductive medicine and, thereafter, intensive care.
“Sometimes, when you learn new things, it’s not comfortable. But the more you dedicate yourself to learning more, you can really accomplish anything you set your mind to,” Larson said.
A year later, the executive director of children, nephrology, transplants, and infectious disease came open, and Larson transitioned to that role. Under her leadership, children’s care was added to West Fargo, which Larson said, “was really huge for that community to have.”
“I think to have this journey through leadership and touch so many departments, from my seat, I just think I have been blessed to experience all of those different components of what nursing does because it will be important for me going into the future to advocate and support all of those services,” said Larson.
Current role, responsibilities and future outlook
Now, as vice president of nursing and clinical services for Sanford Medical Center Fargo, Larson is focused on a few key issues.
One is becoming a high-reliability organization (HRO) — that is, having structures and systems in place to avoid preventable harm — through the Sanford Accountability for Excellence (SAFE) program.
“Another thing is going back to the roots of nursing as a whole and the commitment that we make in a serving profession,” Larson said. “We have to remember why we committed to the patient and to the work that we’re doing.”
Larson also intends to serve as a liaison with schools and colleges in a partnership to address the North Dakota nursing shortage. Likewise, she is focused on retention, connecting nurses to the amazing work life they can have at Sanford Health.
As a group, Larson and other leaders are also focused on securing Magnet designation, a program that “recognizes nursing excellence and health care systems that strive for the highest level of quality patient care, nurse involvement, and professional practice.”
Looking forward, Larson said, “I have great partners here as I learn more about what the day-to-day will encompass.”
Get to know Theresa Larson
- Education: North Dakota State College of Science, North Dakota State University, and the University of Mary. She holds an AS and BS in nursing and a master’s in nurse administration.
- Family: She and her husband, Jim, have been married for 23 years. Daughter, Emily, 18, is planning to go into nursing. Son, Benjamin, 16, is a junior in high school. Dog, Olivia.
- Hobbies: Spending time at their cabin on Otter Tail Lake in west-central Minnesota, scrapbooking, and reading.
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