Season 1
35 Minutes

Ep. 37 | Susan Thorn, RN | How a Nursing Leader Hit Her Stride During COVID


Susan Thorn, R.N. is a registered nurse, former competitive bodybuilder, and currently serves as the Director of Employee Health Services at Community Health System in Fresno, a giant health enterprise with over 8500 employees.

Susan entered her 60s in the midst of the Covid pandemic while working on her Doctoral dissertation in Industrial and Organizational Engineering and, at the same time, finding new love. “Last year was the best year of my life,” Susan asserts.

Links in this episode:

THE IMPERFECT SHOW NOTES

To help make this podcast more accessible to those who are hearing impaired or those who like to read rather than listen to podcasts, here are our show notes.

These show notes come via the Otter.ai service. The transcription is imperfect. But hopefully, it’s close enough – even with the errors – to give those who aren’t able or inclined to learn from audio interviews a way to participate.

Susan Thorn, RN  00:00

Whether it’s our personal lives or our professional lives, there’s so many things we’re capable of that we don’t push ourselves. We don’t challenge ourselves out of fear of failure. And I certainly have never been afraid of failing. And the more I put myself out there and fail, gosh, the more I learn and the more I grow, and the more I get to connect with people like you.

Achim Nowak  00:27

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcasts. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected FOURTH ACTS, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. I am so happy to welcome Susan Thorn to the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. Susan is a registered nurse and a seasoned nursing administrator. Susan currently serves as the head of employee health services at Community Health in Fresno. A giant health enterprise with over 8500 employees. Susan entered her 60s In the midst of the COVID pandemic, she has been responsible for managing the health services for all 8500 staff at Community Health while working on her doctoral dissertation, industrial and organizational engineering. And at the same time, finding new love. Last year was the best year of my life, Susan told me, I want to find out how Susan continues to maneuver these multiple facets of her life at a time when so many people have felt overwhelmed. And I want to learn about her commitment to her personal fitness and competitive bodybuilding. And how this discipline may have fortified Susan’s resilience. So Susan, welcome.

Susan Thorn, RN  02:09

Thank you so much.

Achim Nowak  02:12

I am so happy to meet you. And I’m so intrigued by by the journey that got you where you are today. And I’d like to start with start every podcast, which is when you were younger teenager. Um, you thought about Jeez, this is what I want to do when I grow up. What are you entertaining at that time?

Susan Thorn, RN  02:33

There were several, I think three in particular, during my, you know, middle early high school years. One was that I wanted to be a teacher. And I remember telling my mom, I wanted to be a teacher. And she told me Don’t do that. There’s not enough money in teaching. Yeah, she’s probably right. I also told her that I wanted to then be a psychologist. And she cautioned me against that because she said they’re a diamond doesn’t. So then I told her I wanted to be a nurse. And again, she told me that’s a really dirty job. That’s probably not the best career. And I think that I didn’t realize it until Gosh, I don’t know, maybe a decade ago. I really am all three now. And when it comes to patients or my colleagues, I’m a teacher. Sometimes I’m a psychologist, but at my core and my heart, I’m a nurse. Yeah, yeah,

Achim Nowak  03:29

I have to chuckle at the fact that your mom tried to talk you out of all three. And now you’re doing all three. I think that’s really cool. Sometimes a mom really doesn’t know best. Yeah. I’m not a nurse. But I do some work in hospitals. So I know large entities, like where you work. And you spent several decades in senior roles in large nursing institutions. And my first thought always is, gosh, that’s really hard work. But this could be my my naive, outsider perspective. So if you could give our listeners a sense of maybe a moment or two we go this is why I do this work in hospitals. This is what I love about it. But maybe also a moment or two where you go Why the hell am I doing this? This is hard. And you can start on either end, Susan. So

Susan Thorn, RN  04:25

yeah, gosh, I guess every year that I’ve been in healthcare IT as I reflect back, it holds more meaning and value for me on both sides of it. When I came to Fresno, at that point in time I had been looking to, you know, where do I want to end up in my career? And what what impact do I want to make and I had been asking, you know, praying on it and asking God I told him I My intention is to be somewhere nice and warm and beautiful. So I’m just looking at San Diego Palm Springs being in And he decided to plunk me down here and press No. And I’m so very grateful that I’ve been here in the time I’ve had. And I’ve learned more in the last four years. Last week, mark four years I’ve been at community. I’ve learned more in the last four years, and I’ve learned in my entire career. And I think that the thing that is most rewarding for me is working alongside of others, or mentoring people who want to go into nursing, or the middle of their education in nursing. And they say, I’m here because of you inspired me to go and become a nurse. And for that, I’m super proud of that. We need more nurses. I think that, you know, throughout the pandemic, one of the hardest parts of the pandemic, and I don’t think any of this has been easy. I was reminded yesterday on a call me leadership call, and it’s a resiliency call that we have once a week and it’s talking about, we work on what can we do for the staff to continue to build or restore resiliency or or get them through this very difficult time in health care. And I was reminded that we’re coming up on 600 days since the World Health Organization’s announcement. Good. I remember, gosh, at that, so far at the height, and I’ll say so far, because we’re not done yet. We don’t know what this is going to do. Every time we start surge, decrease, we get surprised. And there’s a turn. But almost exactly a year ago, it was Thanksgiving weekend. And it was you were waking up. One morning I woke up opened up my computer that was that’s what I do. I wake up in the morning, I open up my computer and check and see how many positive employees do we have overnight, that we need to quickly to prevent them from getting to shifts and infecting others. And one morning, I woke up it was Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. And there were 30 new positive employees. And for in my position as a director and administrator that’s frightening for me, because I feel very dedicated to protecting our staff, keeping them safe. And I need to keep them at the bedside so that we can continue to serve patients. Yeah. But that four days was super tough for me. That was a tough one.

Achim Nowak  07:20

Yeah. As I listened to you, and I sense the emotion as you’re describing that right now. And I get a sense that you are in the best sense, or nurturer and a caretaker. But I also know how how draining that can be? How do you sustain yourself. So you can serve in a role where you’re responsible for lots and lots of employees and their well being?

Susan Thorn, RN  07:53

First and foremost is I’m very blessed to be working alongside of some amazing leaders who’ve been great mentors for me. And I think it’s the, it’s the people doing the work that keeps me engaged and motivated. I know, we have a very large campus downtown for us now we’ve got several campuses, five of them, but our largest is downtown in Fresno. And from the parking garage to the hospital, there’s a long bridge on the Second Second Street Bridge that you walk across into the hospital. And I think the moments that I part of the most precious for me, or the most meaningful are on a Sunday morning when I walk out on that bridge at 630 in the morning to go check on things. And I know that hospital is full of RNs, respiratory therapists, doctors, residents, or environmental health services that keep us running. It just I realized how critical it is the work is to keep that going down.

Achim Nowak  08:57

How does one go from being a registered nurse to being somebody who manages loads and loads of people in that responsibility? Was that intentional? Or did people at some point say, Hey, Susan can handle this? Let’s give it to her.

Susan Thorn, RN  09:13

Maybe a little bit of both? Oh, it was very intentional when I as a registered nurse working at the bedside. And in the clinical setting, taking care of communities. I’ve had good leaders and I’ve had not so good leaders. Yeah. As we all have. I think that there was one period of time in particular where I had one leader who very much was a behind the desk leader who made decisions that maybe weren’t in the best interest for that frontline staff. And remember what that does to the culture. What it does to people feeling a great sense of joy and the work that they’re doing, and it having meaning for them. And I very much decided at that At time, I need to go back to school. And further my education. So I can be a leader that is always there supporting those frontlines. Yeah. Yeah.

Achim Nowak  10:10

We’ve come across each other through mutual friends and what are called the leadership playground, people who are authorities in the field who write wonderful books. And one of the things that I admire about you is that you You strike me as the epitome of a continuous learner who wants to learn as as exemplified by you getting your doctorate, right. Yeah. And I believe you have several master’s degrees, not just one, your your classic overachiever, is that correct?

Susan Thorn, RN  10:41

No, just one. Just one. And if I had known what was involved in getting a PhD, it’s, it’s a good thing. I didn’t know because I probably wouldn’t have done

Achim Nowak  10:50

it. Yeah. Since you talk about your passion for learning, and I wanted to learn more about leadership. And I love your example of like, I knew what I didn’t want to be. Yeah, but what are some things that you have learned along the way about good leadership, either through your studies, or through your engagement with people around you where you go, she or he, they’re a good leader? What if you had to give us some pointers on good leadership? What has Susan learned?

Susan Thorn, RN  11:24

I really am had so many good mentors. And like you said, you and I have been connected for quite a while through some really tremendous leadership groups. And for that, I’m so very grateful. I think one of the most important things for me is I would never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. Yeah. And there isn’t anything that I’ve done. In my career that I’ve done as a bedside nurse that I wouldn’t get out and do today. The only way I can stay connected with the people that are doing the work that need that rely on me to make good decisions, is if I’m willing to put scrubs on and get out there and do it with them. And so that I maintain that is very, very important to me. And then I guess, you know, whether it’s our personal lives, or our professional lives, there’s so many things we’re capable of, that we don’t push ourselves, we don’t challenge ourselves out of fear of failure. And I certainly have never been afraid of failing. And the more I put myself out there and fail, gosh, the more I learn, and the more I grow, and the more I get to connect with people like you.

Achim Nowak  12:38

When you were in your 40s, you decided to make a strong commitment to your personal fitness, which also led to competitive bodybuilding. At a time when for some people maintain the fitness becomes harder, and the body doesn’t always cooperate. Right. So I’m curious about two things. Number one, what were inside of you did your fire for more fitness come from? And number two, what inside of you took it from? Well, I’m just going to work out really hard and be in great shape too. Darn it. I want to I want to do this competitively.

Susan Thorn, RN  13:22

Yeah, I think I think throughout my life, I’ve always been interested in weightlifting, bodybuilding. When I was in my 20s, I used to read, you know, the classic bodybuilding magazines from all the amazing women that came way before me, Rachel mcclish, and others like her. At that point in time, I did not have the confidence or think it was something that was available to me. I didn’t play sports in high school, I wasn’t physical pen. And again, it was all about the confidence and doing so. And then, late in my 30s, I had experienced some deep grief that I was working through all of the traditional westernized methods of working through that, you know, medications, going to doctors, all of those things, none of those things were working for me. And I’m very much about emotional milk, mental wellness, as much as I am wellness. So that was very important to me. So what I turned to I turned to the gym, the gym was a super safe place to hide, I could put my headphones on anybody. And I always left the gym feeling so much better than I did when I entered church. And I guess working through that, understanding that you know, one day I can come into the gym and I can lift five pounds. The next week I walk in I get to lift 10 pounds. Well if I can live 10 Maybe I can live 15 And just this constant state of challenging myself and working through my grief during that time. I started seeing results. When I was about 40. I remember saying to myself, gee, you know, this thing that I liked when I was in my 20s Watching women bodybuilders, maybe I can do it, and made a goal to compete just one time, just to say I did before I was 50. And so then very quickly, all of a sudden, I’m 49. And

Achim Nowak  15:24

right at the door,

Susan Thorn, RN  15:26

dang it. Yeah. So I did. So I got a coach and, you know, entered a bodybuilding contest. And I remember standing backstage in the line waiting to be called out very first time, thinking crap. This isn’t what I thought I had gotten out of school, high school never stood up in front of a group to speak any of that. So it really was way out of my comfort zone. But once I did it, you know, I realized if I can do that, if I can step on stage and do that I can do anything. And it really did open doors. For me, it was the people that I met along the way, understanding that the other women on that stage, there is no perfection. We all have a history, we all are working through stuff.

Achim Nowak  16:17

I just so appreciate the connection you made about how making physical progress through working out helped you move through grieving, and I, I totally get that. But I had not associated those two before. Yeah. And, and I’m struck by something else you just said, and you said it early in the conversation. So if we can play with that somewhere, you said, I was standing backstage now goes going like shit, this isn’t what I thought this was what I think it is. You said the same thing about your PhD now. And I’m gonna just play around with this a little bit. What strikes me is you are a risk taker. And once you commit to something, you’re going to do it even if it maybe doesn’t look like what you thought it would be, and that I would describe as an outside person as a as a strength and something that moves you into new adventures. Am I interpreting this correctly?

Susan Thorn, RN  17:12

Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s, it’s built on faith. Yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s like I talked about, like, moving here to Fresno, and joining Community Health Systems wasn’t my plan. But it’s not about my plan. There’s a higher plan. And I’m just here to do you know. Yeah. I think going back to what you said about playing with that, in terms of challenging myself in bodybuilding, and having and having those awful moments that why am I even doing this? Yeah. As well as these Defining Moments life defining moments where you’ve reached, you’ve accomplished something you didn’t think you could do. Those are the good and the bad. And the same has been true with my PhD. You know, I’ve got just like in bodybuilding, you’ve got a coach. So I’ve got my dissertation team, I’ve got a dissertation chair, who’s amazing. And there’s times when we have a zoom call, and I want to close my computer and throw it out the window, or some. And then there’s other times that I’m just so incredibly grateful for this experience.

Achim Nowak  18:26

A word from your sponsor, that’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast www.my, fourth active.com, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. I’d love to go back to one moment to to your guidance through face if you don’t mind. I have my own guidance and our faith may be different. But how do you hear guidance from faith? How does it talk to you,

Susan Thorn, RN  19:16

Susan? Yeah. Sometimes it’s a whisper in my ear. That’s such a very good question. I think sometimes my faith speaks to me, just as we’ve said that I am. embark upon something that I don’t think I can do it. And once I get to the other side that speaks to me. Yeah. I think one of the, I think for all of these things, whether it was my bodybuilding my work as a nurse, and advocating for caretakers, or my PhD. There was many years ago, Stephen Covey, in the eighth habit had said, Find Your Voice help other people find their voice. And I have had so many people support me and help me find my voice, that I just really feel dedicated and passionate about helping other people find their voice.

Achim Nowak  20:14

That was so beautifully expressed. Susan, and I totally get that. I mentioned in the introduction, and I think I’m saying this with your permission, when you’re early 60s, you just entered the 60s. Yes. And. And that can be a time when some people are counting the years to retirement. But with you I hear, this is a time of continued expansion and discovery. So if I can just break it into three different areas like the one we’ve already touched on, but you mentioned the 600 COVID. I only know the experience from watching the media, the media reports and what we see. You talked about continuous learning and how you can how much you’ve learned the last four years, but certainly during COVID, I’m sure. So if you would tell us during the 600 days, what have you learned about yourself, Susan, but being a leader in a pandemic, what have you learned about life and faith in the 600 days as you’re selling, navigating through COVID?

Susan Thorn, RN  21:19

I think one thing, and I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before is a bout six years ago, I went to a conference where Peter Sanghi it was one of his contracts, and very intimate conference.

Achim Nowak  21:33

I just want to stop for a moment if people listeners don’t know, he’s like a giant in organizations, organizational leadership. If you study this, he’s like one of the big guys.

Susan Thorn, RN  21:43

Yes, he is a giant, I had been studying him for probably 20 years. So going and spending a weekend with him was certainly life changing for me. But towards the end of that conference, he and I sat and chatted, and I told him, you know, Peter, I just really want to go back. And I want to fix healthcare, because I had been passionate about fixing health care, like, I don’t know, in the 90s, when we knew it was broken then. And certainly COVID has now not only broken, whatever was left, but we’re hemorrhaging now. And I mean, that may not be a bad thing, in that it is really causing us to look at health care and fixing it. But I remember telling Peter that I wanted to go back and fix healthcare and he said, Susan, healthcare is broken, you go back and you take care of the people that are taking care of the people, and you let health care figure itself out. And I think from a system standpoint, that was so very impactful for me. And I always remember that. And that’s part of the reason that I think I am where I am right now, because that’s where I meant to be. They’re taking care of the people who are doing all of this tremendous work. Yeah.

Achim Nowak  22:56

I am envious in the best possible way that you got to have that talk with Peter Sangay. And that that wisdom, that’s just brilliant.

Susan Thorn, RN  23:04

Yeah, it was brilliant in it. It’s really stuck with me, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think I owe health care that for what is it has given me. Yeah.

Achim Nowak  23:15

And then I’m recording on Zoom. So audience, you’re listening. But I’m noticing you get very emotional as you’re talking, which lets me understand how and how meaningful this is for you. And that’s moving into me. We already talked about the thesis. But then the other thing, I have to talk about that because I follow you on Facebook, in the midst of COVID, in the midst of writing a thesis in the midst of all of this going on, you know, Susan Thoren got herself a new boyfriend is saying this because I have a lot of single friends to go like shoot, how do I date during COVID? Now I can’t even have a traditional date and you’ve just had yet if you had your one year anniversary or close to one year, right? We just

Susan Thorn, RN  24:01

passed the one year. Yeah. So

Achim Nowak  24:04

because it’s such a beautiful story. And as a person who is incredibly busy, doesn’t have that much free available time. And you seem to have found somebody who you’re very well matched with and you play very nice with each other. Would you just describe that story for us?

Susan Thorn, RN  24:24

Yeah, Susan Thorne was not looking for a boyfriend. And I think, you know, it’s kind of like it’s the same as that 10 years between the time I decided to enter a bodybuilding contest. 10 years was a long ways off, so I didn’t have to worry too much about it for a very long time. And I think COVID did the same thing. Right? It created this sci fi for me in that we can’t go physically meet people or talk to people because we’ve got COVID right now, so texting and phone was pretty easy and safe. Jeffrey had texted sent me one day to let me know that he would be working within 30 miles of where I work. He lives several hours away. And he wanted to come and meet me. And so I explained to him that with COVID, I was very busy, no time, all of that. And he pressured me sent really, really, I just need to meet you. So I told him, Okay, tomorrow, I’ve got 10 minutes between 920 and 930. So he said, Okay, which I thought it was, I couldn’t believe he was going to drive 30 miles to spend 10 minutes. So we did and we met in 10 minutes turned into 30. And I missed my 930 meeting. And we’ve been very close friends, he likes adventure, like I do traveling and meeting people, he very much, you know, servant leadership is something that’s very dear to me. And he very much is a servant leader as well. So we’re very aligned in how we think about people and want to serve the greater good.

Achim Nowak  26:05

My sense from following your romance on Facebook, if I go a little deeper, is also that Jeffrey really knows how to court you. And he knows how to make you feel good. And he knows how to make you feel special. And we all deserve that, you know, we every single one of us does, would you just talk about that aspect of having a courtship or romance and the middle of an incredibly busy life and a man who you’re compatible with? But who? My sense is that he brings out the best in you and elevates your life? Would you speak about that?

Susan Thorn, RN  26:44

Yeah. You know, obviously, it’s got to be very patient, and understanding in my position, what’s going on with my life right now? I can’t imagine how hard it must be to love a nurse who’s working in administration in the midst of COVID and working on her PhD, because it does leave very little time. For other things. Yeah, I guess for me, I mean, it’s happened over a very long period of time, or taking it slow. Both appreciate and enjoy each other as people of all. It’s a good place.

Achim Nowak  27:24

Yeah. And that elicited a big smile. Nice. I was struck by one thing you said to me when, when I first approached you about being on this podcast, and you said something that it’s not easy for us to say you said last year was the best year of my life, and the next year will be even better, and you set it with a matter of assurance. And our listeners might go wait a minute, she she is in the middle of a hospital that’s COVID going on she has, she has all these things going on, you know, what prompts you to frame your life in this way and say this has been a really good year.

Susan Thorn, RN  28:09

I think that one of the things about COVID, for myself and for others. It’s either made us harder, or it’s made us more appreciative, one or the other. And I’m a firm believer that we get to choose. There’s been lots of it that’s happened to all of us. We were talking in a group yesterday about creating a documentary, and I suggested that it be kind of a day in the life of so A Day in the Life a nurse at the bedside A Day in the Life of a doctor in the Edie A Day in the Life of a nutritional services worker during COVID. What do those look like? And so one of the things that I followed with that was, how do we do that without creating 30 minutes of just sobbing and bawling? Because this is elephants, so very hard. And we all laughed and said, maybe that’s what we need. We need some time to think about it and process it. I think the thing to your question about how do you get through this? For a lot of this, a lot of us, we get through it by not thinking about it. You remember your mission, you remember what the goals are? Remember your priorities, operational priorities and the task that you have in front of you, and you just do it. And I think through that we see I certainly have formed bonds with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But we both we all have a connection that goes pretty deep.

Achim Nowak  29:40

Because this is a podcast about fourth acts on next acts. And I appreciate a comment you made just a while ago by basically assuming responsibility for our reactions to things. And while you cannot predict your own future, if we can play a little game right now, like if you could wave a magic wand and say these are some things I like would like more of the things I would like less of what are some things that Susan would like to have a little more of in her life, and things that she would like to have a little less of in her life.

Susan Thorn, RN  30:14

I think more, I really love to travel people, and learn about other cultures. So that absolutely, if I could wave a wand, I would be in Italy today, or Greece, enjoying the rich cultures and the food and wine, I love all of those things. So more of that would be pretty cool. The other thing that I seek to have more of, as you mentioned, I’m a lifelong learner, and student. But honestly, I need to be done. And I do not need anything more. And, you know, for me, it’s never been about the degree or the initials after your name. It’s everything that I’ve grown and been more enriched in my life because of it along the way. So that being said, I don’t intend to continue on with my own education. But I am very passionate about becoming an educator, and developing new health care leaders, because I don’t want to do this forever. I certainly don’t want to go through another pandemic again. But I hope that everything that I’ve learned, and this is, I mean, again, I become very emotional about it, because it’s been so incredibly hard. How can I take this tacit knowledge that I’ve gained, and all of the the voice of all of the others that who have done this very challenging work? How can I take that and harness it so that I can build a workforce in the future? That’s better prepared for this? I think one of the things that leadership could learn by is really listening to the voice of the one who’s in the weeds doing and making them heard. Yeah, yeah.

Achim Nowak  31:59

I so hear a passion for leadership as you’re speaking. And as somebody who likes that playground, I so appreciate that. If you had the chance, based on what you know, now, after your life experiences, your continual learning, she had a chance to whisper in to young Susan’s ears and share a little bit of wisdom with her. And that doesn’t mean trying to change her journey. But what is something that you would say to her to maybe help her navigate through life?

Susan Thorn, RN  32:28

Yeah, I, I absolutely would say to her, stop doubting yourself. Yeah. And be brave. You can do it. Yeah. Cool. We spend so much of our lives in doubt, and fear of failure.

Achim Nowak  32:45

Yeah. Yeah. As we wrap up, I sometimes have guests who are have books out or whatever these things and you’re, you’re not promoting anything, which is great. We’re just learning about your life. But if people are curious about your hospital system, and Fresno, about the work you’re doing, and people want to go, I want to just learn more about what Susan Thorne is doing and where she works. Where is there a website as a place that you would send them to? Where would they go?

Susan Thorn, RN  33:18

I do have a website. It’s Bri collage, H t.com.

Achim Nowak  33:24

You spell that out for us, please?

Susan Thorn, RN  33:26

Sure is a B R. I C OLAGEHT. Cool. And it really is. It’s a venture that I hoped to be making once I complete my PhD. And that would be just share my passion with organizations and leaders. In communicating the communications that happen between upper level the mid level managers and the people that are at the frontlines doing the work. We have a lot of work we can do that area. And I I only know because I’ve been privileged to have some really great communications coaches that have coached me. Yeah. And taught me how to be better communicators stuff.

Achim Nowak  34:06

On that note, thank you so much for the gift of this conversation. I just love learning more about you know,

Susan Thorn, RN  34:14

I love connecting with you, and thank you for what you do you you are the one that’s also giving a voice to the people and sharing their voice. So I appreciate that.

Achim Nowak  34:23

Thank you. Bye for now.

Susan Thorn, RN  34:26

Goodbye. Thank you so much.

Achim Nowak  34:33

Like what you heard, please go to my fourth act.com And subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao

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