When JoLae Semmler was a nursing student, nobody wanted to work in orthopedics.
The young nurses in training were frightened by the idea of complex surgeries, lifting and rotating patients who might stay in the hospital for weeks at a time.
Semmler, who has spent more than 25 years working as an orthopedics nurse, has a hard time today understanding why she was so nervous about orthopedics during her training. Her job, being a trusted caregiver and a connection between a skilled surgeon and his patients, is challenging and rewarding, she says.
“They told us orthopedics was scary,” says Semmler, “Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s been a wonderful place to be.”
Inspired to care
The Mitchell, South Dakota, native was taking classes to become medical lab technician when her 44-year-old aunt died of bone cancer. During her illness, Semmler watched her aunt’s nurses and was impressed and amazed by what she saw.
“They had such a compassionate presence, helping her to keep her dignity at a time where that is so very difficult,” says Semmler. “We had a trust that they would always give her the best care and help keep her free from pain.”
Over the years, Semmler’s mother had always said that she thought her daughter would make an excellent nurse, with her kind soul and desire to take care of others. Semmler decided that mom was right, continuing on with school to get her nursing degree.
After one year as a nurse in Texas, Semmler started work at Sanford Hospital caring for patients coming out of orthopedic surgery. The job was quite different than it is today, with patients staying for long periods time. She worked with equipment rarely used today, traction machines and orthopedic beds to reposition patients, who had undergone much more invasive surgery.
“I loved taking care of people and I loved the great things we were able to do for people,” says Semmler, who spent 16 years there, working her way up to clinical care coordinator. “I’ve always appreciated being able to work with the orthopedics patients.”
Putting patients first
When one of the orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Robert Van Denmark Jr., asked her if she would be interested in applying to work in his clinic, she was intrigued by the idea. It would give her a different way to interact with patients, assisting the doctor as his primary nurse.
For the past 10 years, Semmler has become a familiar face and voice to many of the orthopedic specialist’s patients. She spends her days calling patients and getting information for and from them, preparing patients to see the doctor and assisting the surgeon with in-office procedures.
She always tries to live up to the trust her patients place in her, keeping in mind the way those nurses cared for her aunt so many years ago.
“I listen and I try to stay pleasant and be sincere. What I tell them I’ll do, I make sure to do,” says the nurse, saying that may mean adding another patient to a busy day or taking a few more minutes to be sure to return a call that afternoon. “You go the extra mile for the patients.”
Sometimes it can be challenging when patients have expectations that can’t be met, but she tries her hardest to help. It feels good when patients tell her doctor that she’s been helpful, she says.
An exciting career
Co-workers say that Semmler is known for speeding by quickly in her brightly colored tennis shoes. She still takes the time to hold a patient’s hand, carefully noting her symptoms and explaining what will happen next when the doctor comes into the room.
For the past two years, Dr. Van Demark has specialized in hand surgery, pioneering techniques to help patients in the region with Dupuytren’s Disease, a disease where their hands are permanently contracted. Every Friday, Semmler is the comforting face and pair of hands who prepares patients for a procedure called needle aponeurotomy, which cuts the tight cords of tissue.
“It’s our little miracle,” she says with a warm smile. “We like to say it’s bringing babies into the world around here every Friday.”
Every day is exciting, different and packed about as full as it can be, says Semmler. She does the job because she genuinely cares for the people who walk into the exam room, she said.
“Every day takes courage, because it’s an important job,” says Semmler. “We do the best we can do every day and we do it for those patients.”