Pam Johnson-Carlson

Pam Johnson-Carlson has helped designed the ground floor of nationally ranked pediatric facilities, making decisions on everything from plumbing to door placement. However, those aren’t the experiences she recounts when reflecting on her nursing career.

“I took care of a child that was 5 years old and he was really sick and he made it,” Johnson-Carlson said through tears. “We got invited to his [high school] graduation and … 12 years later, he still remembered us caring for him.”

For Johnson-Carlson, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs, simply showing up to work is the best part of her job.

“We don’t do it for the recognition,” she said. “We just do it because we love being there and making sure that we’re making that difference for that family.”

A Nebraska native, Johnson-Carlson has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb., a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and a doctorate of nursing practice, with an emphasis on scholarship and research, from Creighton University. She started her career as a technician at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., working her way up to chief nursing officer during her 30-year stint. She then moved to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where she served as the chief nursing officer while overseeing construction of a 465-bed hospital, before coming to Colorado Springs four years ago.

Johnson-Carlson talked with the Business Journal this week about the Children’s Hospital’s role in the area’s growing health care ecosystem, and the importance of preventive pediatric care.

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What drew you to the medical field — specifically pediatrics?

I’ve always loved kids. Since I was in high school, I wanted to do something with kids. It was either teaching or the medical field, and when people were sick, I was always wondering why and wanted to know more. I liked to teach and nursing has both of those. I knew that once I went to nursing school, I’m going to work in pediatrics, because that’s why I like to be a nurse. … It’s a privilege to be able to care for somebody else’s child, and to be here for the family and the child. … And they say the darnedest things. They level set you and put you back into the perspective of things in life, and they can always make you smile with their gifts that they give back. They’re constantly giving us more than I think sometimes we’re giving them.

What brought you to Colorado Springs?

When given the opportunity to join Children’s and be part of helping to design the building with a team of people, and then to be able to help open it, it seemed like a natural fit. I loved the people I met when I came here, and I loved the mission and the vision for what they saw to be built for this community and with this community. It seemed like an honor and a privilege to come to this next in my career. … What I did with the team has helped create the facility, but it’s the people in the facility that make the difference. … The contractors who helped build this building, it wasn’t a job to them. … This is for their community. This is for their neighbors, their kids … so it’s pretty hard to turn that away. And when I came and talked to the individuals about the job, you could tell the investment, the support and the belief was all there about what this could all be for the community. … You stood back and what you knew is that this building was built with many people supporting [it], and to watch the doors open and to see the patients come in — it’s like, ‘Yeah, we did it, and now it’s up to the team to take it from here and be what we can all be.’

What are your professional responsibilities?

I say I wear two hats. One is to make sure that nursing is being practiced at the standards [set] nationally and we’re also setting high standards that we can share nationally, and become trendsetters with those standards and patient care. Everything that we do in nursing is with a team, and so my job is to look at the whole patient care and all the disciplines that come together to deliver that patient care. … My job is also to help remove barriers, so that we can be all that the team can be for the patients and the families, and for each other. So I help lead with the team, or I’m right there supporting the team, helping them believe they can do it and giving them the vision.

Talk about the challenges and rewards that come with building a hospital from the ground up. 

I think the biggest thing we did is we designed it based off operations, so at the same time we were designing … we ensured the design supported the workflow instead of [asking] after building it, ‘Now how are you going to try to figure out how to work within it?’ We did both at the same time, so it took longer in meetings to help design it and to put it together because we were constantly asking, ‘OK, so if we move this patient from here to there, then how would it work?’ So we changed doors, we changed locations of things, we looked at workflow within so many beds, where there was support for medications or supplies for support of team members so that they didn’t have to go across the unit to go get things.

There has been a lot of recent progress in the Pikes Peak-area health care industry. Where do you think Children’s Hospital fits into that?

Our role is to be an advocate for the kids in the community and southern Colorado. … Wherever the pertinent meetings are that are addressing the health care needs in this community, we need to be at that table discussing how are we as a community addressing it. … That doesn’t just mean the kids that need our services in the hospital, because they’re already sick. We need to be out there addressing preventive care, so that it’s really embracing the whole continuum  of the child’s life — it’s before they use us, it’s when they use us, and it’s after they use us.

As a surveyor for the American Nursing Credentialing Center’s Magnet Recognition Program, you travel to places like Saudi Arabia and Australia to review hospitals’ nursing programs. Talk about your work with that.

After hospitals submit their application to the Magnet program, then we might get assigned to that hospital and we help review their practices according to standards of care set by the ANCC around nursing standards and interdisciplinary outcomes that incorporate nursing practice with them. I’ve gone internationally and throughout the United States to look at other hospitals and their care delivery. What’s exciting about that is you walk away and you really see the great things everyone is doing to better the care out there for our patients, and it gives you ideas on what to bring back.

… It’s engaging and rewarding because that’s why I got into nursing, is to see the difference that you can make, and to walk away and see what people have pioneered and [that they] tried something new to continue to strive for better outcomes — you’re proud of this profession, and you’re proud of health care. We have our challenges but the best thing about those challenges is, we’re all out there wanting to remove challenges and make it better. That’s what’s rewarding — when you walk away and you see what people have changed.

What advice would you give someone who is looking to get into pediatric nursing?

It’s the best. It’s not really a job. … You come to work every day and you’re there for that child and their family. …

Nursing gives you a lot of opportunities. I mean, I built a hospital with a great team. Who would have thought I would be in design meetings? Who would have thought I would be talking about the plumbing and the fixtures and etc.? But working frontline staff for as many years as I did and knowing about the day-to-day activities that go into caring for patients, it helps you know how to work with teams to bring up a building, design a building, and then bring it to life. That’s the most rewarding — to open it up and watch everybody do their jobs.