With nearly four decades of experience as a registered nurse, Mary Elizabeth Zientek dedicates herself to caring for sick and injured patients. Her bedside manner, optimism and appreciation for a challenge show her passion. Zientek’s employer, Cornerstone Specialty Hospitals Shawnee, recognized those characteristics by naming her the 2020 Employee of the Year.

In a press release, CEO Kris Karns said, “Mary’s love and compassion for patients and their families remind us all why we make a difference. She’s always there to share a kind word, lend a helping hand, or share knowledge with patients, families, and our team.”

Position and duties

Zientek joined Cornerstone in 2014 as an RN and now serves as a house supervisor. After working most of her career in acute care and oncology, she enjoys working with long-term care patients and appreciates the opportunity to build strong connections with them and their families.

“The reason I think I like the acute care so much is it really challenges my brain. I have to make a lot of decisions during my shift that affects patient care, and I’ve been very well prepared to do that,” Zientek said.

The long list of duties assigned to the house supervisor includes providing care as well as leadership and taking accountability for the staff. She also ensures everyone adheres to schedules and medication distribution, while providing access to resources and handling unforeseen problems during each shift.

“I problem solve, help the other nurses problem solve. … If they have a question about whether they should do this or do that — if there’s any immediate needs, I help them get the tools that they need to take care of the patient, whether that’s equipment, certain medications, whatever it is,” Zientek said.

Excellence and optimism

Amanda Kidd, chief nursing officer at Cornerstone, described Zientek as “the epitome of excellence.” Zientek holds herself to a high standard, and while her work can be taxing in many ways, she finds peace in her family and faith.

“From my Native American culture, I am very grounded in the earth with an understanding of the natural flow of life, and that helps me to support a lot of those that are near the end of life. I really deeply believe in from the earth to the earth,” she said.

Zientek chose a career in health care because she wanted to make a difference. She worked as a hospital clerk in her early 20s, and after watching the nurses, decided to become an RN. More than 30 years later, her original intentions remain intact.

“The absolute bottom line in keeping me an optimist is that I know I make a difference,” Zientek said. “Every day that I am there, I make a difference. I affect someone positively and impact their lives in some way every day.”

Cornerstone awarded her the title in part for her optimism; however, Zientek believes her co-workers achieve the same level of care with their patients. Winning Employee of the Year surprised her.

“I work with so many people that are very good at what they do,” she said. “They’re outstanding individuals that are involved within their community and taking care of the patients day in, day out, that I was actually surprised. And there’s just so many people that are, I think, as deserving or more deserving than me. So, I’m humbled.”

Family and community

Zientek’s compassion and propensity for service started as a child growing up on a farm. She and her family cared for their animals and each other, and she believes her career is an extension of those experiences. Toward the end of her life, Zientek’s great-grandmother revealed she took nursing classes while attending school in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, in the late 1800s.

“She never told me that. She would tell me about getting on a train and going across the prairie, traveling from Oklahoma to Kansas, and about all of her trips in the wagons and so forth, but she never told me about her nursing. But I can’t even begin to imagine what nursing in the 1800s was like,” Zientek said.

“I felt proud of her because that was a huge step, and women in nursing were not respected then, at all.”

Zientek took her own big step in 2020, caring for patients on ventilators during a global pandemic, and was named Employee of the Year for her tenacity. She worked though one of the most challenging years in American history for health care professionals, but Zientek believes it comes with the territory.

“If we have to throw on a gown, mask, gloves and all the gear to do it, we put on our battle uniform,” she said. “We go in there, and we fight that battle. We come out, we dust ourselves off, we wash our hands, put a smile on our face, and we go to the next room. And that’s what you have to do. But at the end of the day, you know you have made a difference, and you can take that home with you.”

Zientek’s diligence inspires those around her and makes her team better.

“You want to do your best every day. And if you do that, you can’t fail,” she said.
Find out more about Cornerstone Healthcare Group at chghospitals.com.