The power of positive leadership: Nurse manager transforms operating room team
Ever since she was a child, Katelyn Mertz dreamed of becoming a nurse. As she grew older, her ambition focused on a specific goal ─ to become an operating room nurse.
“After I shadowed a hospital operating room nurse when I was in high school, I knew there was no other place I wanted to work,” said Mertz.
Mertz has achieved her childhood dreams and more. She is now the nurse manager of the operating room at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She stepped into the role nearly a year ago and has already transformed team spirit and morale in the unit.
Forging a path to the OR
After graduating from the University of Scranton’s nursing program in 2012, Mertz was ready to fast-track her way to the operating room. Though some OR units accept nurses immediately following their education and certification, most require at least one year of acute care experience because of the challenging cases and procedures.
Luckily for Mertz, a friend recommended the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s graduate nursing residency program, which offered a direct path to the operating room. Mertz soon excelled as a nursing team member in the OR, primarily assisting with neurosurgery cases, and established herself as a leader.
However, her experiences in the operating room unit weren’t always positive. Shortly after Mertz worked as a travel nurse in th
e operating rooms of several hospitals around the country and then returned to Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, the OR unit’s longtime manager retired, leaving the team without strong leadership. Morale suffered, and some nurses even decided to pursue other job opportunities.
Undeterred, Mertz decided to become a force for change. She went back to school to earn her master’s degree and emerged as an advocate for her team. Leveraging the strong relationships she built with her colleagues, Mertz is able to shape staffing decisions and create growth opportunities tailored to each person.
“Katelyn has always been a stellar nurse, and seeing her excel as a leader has changed the unit for the better,” said Cindy Lutz, an operating room nurse at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Mertz’s primary preceptor when she first started there. “We haven’t had a leader with operating room experience in quite a while, so we feel lucky to have someone like Katelyn with this expertise.”
Many of the struggles under past leadership stemmed from managers who hadn’t experienced the ins and outs of the OR. But more than a decade of operating room nursing experience has given Mertz the deep understanding of the challenges faced by her 206-member team.
Mertz knows the long hours and challenging procedures can be difficult for her staff, having experienced them firsthand. It’s why she still picks up extra night shifts, covers lunches and stays late. She even continues to assist with staffing and running the OR scheduling board to make sure her staff isn’t overburdened.
“There’s nothing Katelyn won’t do for us,” said Lauren McNally, an OR nurse. “She’s always there to offer support, whether it’s lending a hand in an emergency or writing a letter of recommendation.”
Mertz also has an open-door policy for her staff, listening to the challenges they are going through, considering their suggestions for improvements and offering words of encouragement.
She wants her staff to have a voice that is heard, and this has led to one big change: staff now have a say in recruitment. When hiring a new OR nurse, the team interviews the candidate to see how well they can work together. If Mertz’s team doesn’t mesh well with the person, they won’t move forward. The result was a cultural shift in the unit, leading to even more trust, engagement and communication. Leadership now prioritizes transparency around changes and policies, so every member of the team knows their opinions are valued.
Building a positive culture
Part of Mertz’s love for the operating room unit at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is its wide range of cases and procedures. While working at several other hospitals, she said she felt more prepared for the different cases than her colleagues thanks to her training and experiences at Hershey Medical Center. Now as the unit’s manager, she is fostering the same opportunities for growth.
McNally has worked closely with Mertz since she joined the team, but their working relationship has now evolved into a mentorship. Mertz was the first person to offer her support and encouragement when McNally returned to school in August 2023 to pursue her doctorate. Mertz understands the challenges of working full time while also going to school full time, having completed her master’s degree in nursing. Mertz is currently working toward her master’s degree in business administration.
Cara Harris, another nurse in the unit, also appreciates Mertz’s support. “Katelyn’s words of encouragement helped me feel confident when she urged me to take on more leadership responsibilities within the unit—first, taking charge during the night shift and participating in committees, and now transitioning to a new role as a clinical staff leader.”
Ultimately, Mertz’s leadership has led to a culture shift within the team. Now, the unit can fully dedicate themselves to patient care and trust her to lead the way.
“Katelyn knows we’re all here for the same goal—to deliver exceptional patient care,” Harris said.
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