2022 Distinguished Alumni Award Winner Donna (Role) Nelson ’83

Monday, September 12, 2022

Professional Achievement, College of Nursing and Health

Imagine loving your job for 37 years. Donna (Role) Nelson doesn’t have to imagine. Her passion to serve others and her community as a nurse made sure of that.

“As Mahatma Ghandi said, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,’” Nelson said.

Donna (Role) Nelson
Donna (Role) Nelson

After graduating from Viterbo in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Nelson began work at Vernon Memorial Healthcare in the hospital that supported her nursing education with a scholarship—also the hospital where she was born.

For as long as she remembers, Nelson always felt called to nursing, from childhood play to volunteering as a candy striper at Lutheran Hospital. She credits her parents with facilitating that dream by enabling her to volunteer over 3,000 hours during high school.

While at Viterbo, Nelson worked as a nursing assistant at Bethany St. Joseph Nursing Home, and that further fueled her desire to be a nurse, thanks to the nursing home leadership, nurses, nursing assistants, and residents.

Viterbo provided her with a solid foundation in becoming a nurse. The focus of the nursing process included all aspects of the individual, physical, social, intrapersonal, and spiritual needs and the Franciscan values of contemplation, hospitality, integrity, service, and stewardship.

The experiences with leadership of the college, the Franciscan Sisters, professors, and classmates have all influenced her practice as a nurse.

Nelson began her career at Vernon Memorial Healthcare where she celebrated new lives as they came into the world taking their first breaths in labor and delivery. She also was at the bedside of friends and neighbors as they celebrated their life’s journey and took their last breath in hospice care. Her love of obstetrics and hospice truly embraced the circle of life.

As an RN, she was able to touch and serve so many lives at so many different points of her career. Soon after arriving at Vernon Memorial, Nelson became manager of the fledgling hospice program, developing it with her team into a state licensed and a federally certified program.

She also assisted in developing a home health program and became the manager of both home health and hospice services.

Nelson, her staff, and volunteers began fundraising for the hospice program in 1986. A capital campaign she co-chaired to build an inpatient hospice facility was launched in 2011, and after that successful campaign the Bland Bekkedal Center for Hospice Care was completed in 2013.

Nelson transitioned into the manager of development/foundation and volunteer services at Vernon Memorial Healthcare in 2015.

Viterbo nursing students have a rotation in rural health care so they can understand the unique needs and challenges of rural communities. As a part of that rotation, the students have come to Vernon Memorial Healthcare and other health care settings in the area. Nelson has had the joy and privilege of welcoming those students and sharing with them information on home health, hospice, and inpatient hospice care.

Viterbo nursing students also had the opportunity for a clinical rotation in home health and hospice. “The privilege of being able to share with current nursing students and instructors what your education experience meant to you was pure joy for me,” Nelson said.

With the onset of the pandemic, many departments and services were shut down, including the fundraising and volunteer work Nelson did. Now, she found herself with her RN skills in the labor pool at Vernon Memorial Healthcare. She was asked to provide nursing oversight and care to 30 residents in Vernon Memorial’s two assisted living facilities.

“This experience was a gift, that truly brought my nursing career full circle,” Nelson said.

Residents were unable to have visits from family and friends, unable to go to medical appointments, and they couldn’t have visits from clergy or attend spiritual services. The assisted living leadership, staff, and Nelson went to work to address and be creative in keeping families in touch with residents, providing emotional and social interactions, and finding ways to get the residents outside to connect with nature, such as daily walks, car rides, and window visits with families. The team was able to keep the residents safe and free from COVID-19.

In her career Nelson was involved in many professional organizations, including the Wisconsin Homecare Organization, Wisconsin Hospice Organization, and the National Association of Fundraising Professionals. She was the recipient of the Wisconsin Rural Health Ambassador Award and Wisconsin Homecare Leader Award.

Nelson lives in Westby with her husband, Daniel, and they have two grown daughters. Nelson retired at the end of 2020 so she could spend as much time as possible in a new role: grandma.

Nelson remains a volunteer with the Friends of Vernon Memorial Healthcare, and she is western district president of Partners of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. She also is a communion visitor with Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church.

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