Susan Lewis, Grande Ronde Hospital’s registered dietitian and nutrition manager, does not remember the year the urgent phone call came in, but she will never forget the time — 3 a.m.
Lewis was awakened by someone from her staff telling her she needed to come in immediately and prepare the contents of a feeding tube for a patient.
Lewis, wearing a coat over her pajamas, rushed to the hospital to care for a patient who could not eat via his or her mouth due to a medical condition but needed to be fed soon because of a health issue. Lewis’ hope that she would be seen by as few people as possible, because of her nightwear, was dashed when she realized she had forgotten her key.
“I had to knock on the door to get someone to let me in,” she said, noting that she never took off her coat hoping that nobody would notice her pajamas.
Lewis smiles and laughs when discussing her early morning hospital run, one of many experiences she enjoys sharing while discussing her 41-year career at GRH. Lewis, who has put on puppet shows to entertain children while teaching them about nutrition, is preparing to draw the curtain on a notable career. She is set to retire Jan. 11.
Her retirement will be the latest chapter in a Grande Ronde Hospital family story that extends back to the mid-1960s.
Lewis said she owes her career to the inspiration of her mother, Anne Kirkpatrick, who served as GRH’s dietitian for 12 years through 1976. Lewis decided to follow in her mom’s footsteps after visiting her many times at work while growing up in La Grande. Her interest in nutrition and its connection to health was piqued by reading a book about the subject in her mother’s office.
“(The subject) fascinated me,” Lewis said. “I liked science and the chance to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Lewis said the most critical insight she learned by watching her mother was while every patient has different needs, each deserves her undivided attention.
“My mother was a phenomenal listener,” Lewis said.
The dietitian said she, like her mother, who passed away last summer, enjoys learning about her patients.
“It’s important to understand each patient’s story and discover their individual needs in outpatient and inpatient care. What do they need, what do they want? If they want something special while they’re in the hospital, we make it happen. I love connecting with my patients in that way,” Lewis said. “It’s one of the most rewarding parts of this career.”
Lewis and her mother are the only dietitians Grande Ronde Hospital has had since it moved from west Adams Avenue to its present site on Sunset Drive in 1966.
As a dietitian, Lewis is in charge of planning and overseeing the preparation of more than 350 meals each day for all of GRH’s patients, for the hospital’s cafe and for catered hospital events.
Lewis makes sure that a member of her staff visits all the patients each day to see how they like the food and if they have any requests.
“We take pride in making these visits every day. This is very, very important,” she said.
Lewis also helps people who are not GRH patients, individuals who see her at her office and ask questions about their diet. Lewis provides this service via an outpatient clinic she got the hospital to start.
Since 2005, Lewis has also served as a Certified Diabetic Educator at GRH. She advises diabetics on how to control their blood sugar level via lifestyle changes and proper nutrition.
The dietitian often finds herself dealing with multiple situations at once.
“She’s a great multi-tasker. She may be working on a tube feeding or menu when the dishwasher breaks,” said her daughter, Nicole Lewis, a graduate of La Grande High School and Gonzaga University who is now working toward a physical therapy degree.
Susan Lewis said she is able to juggle many balls at once only because of the quality of her staff.
“You have to rely on your team,” she said, “and I have a really great staff.”
Amanda Petersen, who works under Lewis as the department’s food coordinator, said Lewis is not one to lose her composure regardless of how much she has on her plate.
“She always stays calm and levelheaded,” Petersen said.
Petersen also said Lewis, whom she has worked with for 10 years, always has the best interests of her staff at heart.
“She is more than a boss — she is a friend,” Petersen said. “Her door is always open.”
Hannah Robinson, a registered dietitian from Oklahoma, will succeed Lewis. She said her department will be in good hands.
“I think Hannah is wonderful,” said Lewis, who is now training Robinson.
Over the past four decades, Lewis has been active in raising nutrition awareness in local schools, diabetic support groups, prenatal groups and various community classes. She also established a wellness program called “Steps” for employees at GRH, which involved having employees track diet and exercise in groups and in fun ways, and she taught about nutrition at community events like La Grande’s Farmers Market. She has also enjoyed teaching about new discoveries and research on nutrients and how they affect our bodies.
“I love to teach, and I learn a lot when I teach,” she said. “Kids are especially fun to teach because they are so eager and curious.”
Lewis’ route to her career at Grande Ronde Hospital was a bit circuitous. She graduated from Oregon State University in 1975 with a degree in dietetics and industrial management and then went to what was then known as New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center where she served as an intern for a year before being hired to work as a dietician there. She was employed there for a little less than two years before deciding to return to the Grande Ronde Valley.
“I missed my family and the beauty of Eastern Oregon,” she said. “It was in my soul.”
Lewis returned to
La Grande about 18 months after her mother had retired as GRH’s registered dietitian. Lewis’ transition to GRH went smoothly, but it was a hectic and noisy time because the hospital soon began an extensive remodeling of its kitchen.
“I wore earphones in my office (to block out the noise),” said Lewis, who also had to wear a hard hat when venturing into areas where construction work was being done.
It was during this time that Lewis experienced one of the most frightening moments of her career. She said she heard something hit the floor and when she walked out to see what had happened, she saw one of her staff members whose white clothing was drenched in what appeared to be blood.
Lewis said she breathed a huge sigh of relief when the staff member burst out laughing a split second later, explaining that she had dropped a container with 1.5 gallons of cranberry juice that had splashed up on to her clothing.
“She scared me half to death,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ work at GRH has drawn the attention of many during her career. This was evident in 2003 when she was named the Union County Woman of the Year by the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
Whether receiving an award or talking with a community member, Lewis is always quick to praise the many people she has worked with at GRH to allow her to have a fulfilling career.
“I’m grateful to the administration, the board of directors, for the wonderful support of the physicians and my patients, and especially the food service staff along with all of the GRH staff who have been so supportive and good to me,” she said.
Lewis said deciding to retire was difficult, but she speaks with enthusiasm about her future pursuits, such as traveling, gardening and golfing. Many of her pursuits will be undertaken with her husband, Brent. The couple will celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2020.
Lewis said deciding to retire was not easy because of her ties to GRH.
“I truly love my patients, and I love my staff. And I have so many good friends here. Yes, it was a difficult choice to retire. But now I have new adventures and I’m excited to live the next dream,” she said.
She is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, a certified public accountant, their daughter, Nicole, who recently completed her physical therapy practicum at Grande Ronde Hospital, and her friends.