Victoria Walker: Start each day with kindness

Medical services VP sees compassion as essential to care

Victoria Walker stands smiling, arms crossed, next to a pond outside her office building.

Dr. Victoria Walker is the vice president of medical services and quality system at The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society.

She visited with Sanford Health News about her unique path to medicine and the challenges she faced, what a year in Australia taught her, and the value of relationships in all that we do.

The path into medicine

Walker grew up in north-central Iowa — in Bancroft until eighth grade, then to West Bend, where she graduated from high school.

She moved to South Dakota to attend Mount Marty College as an undergraduate.

“It never even crossed my mind to go into medicine until I was an undergrad,” Walker said. “I was studying to be an elementary education major, and I taught a preschool art class after my freshman year … and I decided I did not want to be a teacher.”

Following that, Walker accidentally found herself placed in the wrong science class, one for majors rather than non-majors. It turned out she did really well in the class and then began to think about medicine.

However, she remained hesitant about the prospect of medical school. Walker had already married her high school sweetheart, Lanny, and they had young children.

“But there was someone a couple years ahead of me at Mount Marty who did exactly that. And I thought if she could do it, I could do it too,” Walker said. “I started to see that as a possibility, and that’s the direction I went.”

Walker enrolled at the University of South Dakota for medical school. She then completed a family medicine residency in Pennsylvania and returned to South Dakota in 2000.

A year in Australia

In 2005, Walker and her family spent a year living and working in Australia. Her husband had already lived there for a year as an 11-year-old when his father, a science teacher, participated in an exchange program. The families switched everything — lives, jobs, houses, cars.

“My husband had always talked about how wonderful it would be to do that with our family,” Walker said.

The Walkers decided to participate in a program set up by the Australian government that gave rural doctors the chance to take a vacation as an American doctor took over their care work. Walker covered 15 different practices that year, with each time ranging from one to four weeks.

The family lived in a rural area in the state of Victoria, located on the southern part of the continent. “It was really beautiful and a really wonderful experience,” she said.

Walker believes it also influenced her outlook on the practice of medicine, especially payment models.

“It was really eye-opening to see how much impact on practice it had when you removed administrative burdens,” she said. “Other things were less applicable: I have not had to deal with any seal bites since I returned to South Dakota.”

Joining the Good Samaritan Society

In South Dakota, Walker held a position at Sanford Vermillion Clinic from 2000 to 2008. “We had a great team. Most of them are still there, and leaving that practice to work in Yankton was one of the hardest decisions I ever made,” she said.

In Yankton, Walker served as the medical director and an attending physician in the geriatric psychiatric unit at the Human Services Center. There, she became quite interested in health and aging policy.

In that role, Walker developed a passion around advocating for those who often find themselves on the fringes of care, are not lucrative to care for and cannot advocate for themselves, particularly people dealing with mental illness.

Consequently, she applied for a fellowship in health and aging policy and proposed a project. Walker approached the Good Samaritan Society to collaborate on that project.

“They said yes. … And we’re also looking for a chief medical officer.”

The following year, 2013, Walker joined the Society.

All things patient care

Walker began as chief medical officer and remains in essentially the same position; her title has changed, however, to vice president of medical services and quality system.

In her position, Walker deals with “all things physician-related” and has been a supportive partner “in all things clinical” as well as social services. If it touches patient care, she’s involved in it.

“What I love is working daily with people who are caring for our residents. I hear what their challenges are and connect them to resources and new ways to think about things and approach things — or just affirm that what they’re doing really is on target. I love to be able to connect with people in the field and do that.”

Moreover, at the Society, Walker creates congruence between her personal faith and work life. She initially found praying before each meeting a bit out of place. Now, it feels essential to being a whole person.

Collaborating to drive improvements

“Probably the thing I’m most excited about is the evolution we’ve had over time in working across disciplines to drive improvements,” Walker said.

“One key area that we’ve really matured in over the last several years is how we collaborate across disciplines to decrease the number of residents and patients that experience avoidable hospitalizations. We have gotten much better at aligning our work and improving communication.”

Another key area of improvement Walker identifies is the way the Society thinks about safety, its measurement and how to create a culture of continuous improvement.

It remains an ongoing goal. “Everything remains an ongoing goal,” Walker said.

In the next three to five years, Walker looks forward to hardwiring care across service lines. Removing barriers to care stands out as well.

Family life means everything

The Walkers live in Vermillion, South Dakota, where her husband Lanny runs a family business.

“I know that I would not be as successful as I have been without the support and sacrifice that he has given me,” Walker said. “He has just been awesome.”

They managed to make it through college and medical school with three young kids: Heather, Alexa and Michael. Walker’s son was born a month before she took the MCATs, and her oldest daughter started kindergarten the day she started medical school.

“You’re so young, you don’t know there’s a more sane way of doing things,” said Walker.

Her oldest daughter, Heather, has just completed her family medicine residency, and Walker expresses surprise that she never turned her daughter off from medicine. Walker’s second daughter, Alexa, is a social worker and family counselor, and her son, Michael, is involved in music, entrepreneurship, marketing and coaching. Walker has five grandchildren. And she’s proud of all of them.

The Walkers always turn up at Coyote games. When not following local collegiate athletics, Victoria can be found in the garden, attending to her perennials.

Trust and kindness

“I think that one of the things that continues to impress me over and over again is just how much of our effectiveness is based on relationships and trust,” Walker said. “When we enter into conversations by valuing the other person, listening to what they are saying and striving to understand them before telling them what to do, we can work out problems in a really great way.

“You read it. People tell you it. You have to keep learning it over and over again. But the mantra to myself each day is to start with a focus on being kind.”

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Family Medicine, Senior Services

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