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National Nurses Week 2022: A Feature With Winnie Mele on How Nurse Leaders Can Take Care of their Nurses and Themselves

Analysis  |  By Carol Davis  
   May 09, 2022

A series celebrating nurse leaders who go above and beyond.

Practically every one of Winnie Mele's waking hours is spent taking care of someone. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

As director of perioperative services at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital, Mele, RN, makes sure her nurses are taken care of. At home, she is a caregiver to her husband, John, who is being treated for cancer caused by the events of September 11, and a nephew who has Huntington's disease.

Mele also took care of her sister, who battled Huntington's, and her father before they both died.

"I believe caretaking is in my DNA," she says. "I do it at work and I do it at home."

Mele spoke to HealthLeaders about how nurse leaders can help guide their nurses toward good mental health, and what gives her joy (Hint: it involves singing before a worldwide audience).

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

HealthLeaders: How did you manage emotionally during the most difficult days of the pandemic?

Winnie Mele: The staff looked to leadership to drive this, and I found that it gave me a ministry and a mission during COVID to keep the place going. It kept me busy and then when I came home, I had my ministry at home, so I didn't really think about it. It's kind of what I do.

I found that the biggest thing for help for me during the pandemic for self-care was to go outside. It was cold, but I put on my sweater on my husband would light the back heater, and I would bring out blankets—it didn't matter how cold it was—just to get outside and to breathe fresh air. That was the first thing that brought me comfort: just to sit and do nothing.

HL: What are ways that you've taken care of your nursing teams?

Mele: One thing my leadership team is good at is connecting with the person, so we know our people, and we try to be flexible with our schedules. As hard as it is when someone says, "I need to take my mother for a CT scan," or "My daughter has a dance recital," we try to connect with the person and give them what they need.

We've always been good at it, and one of the reasons why our employee engagement in perioperative services so high is that we really do care about people. I'm from a big family and it's always about the other guy, so when I was putting together the leadership team over the last 10 years, my mission was to hire people that have that same vision. We would [say], "If you don't tell us, we can't help you, so don't hold it in. Whatever you need." We can't always give them everything they want, but we certainly can try to help them navigate these tough times.

The other thing we do is "Heartburn Tuesday," which is an opportunity for them to tell us whatever is getting in their way of providing spectacular care. Whether it's a surgeon that's giving them a hard time or something that's happening at home, or they need a piece of equipment, they have the opportunity to say it … or they knock on my door and tell me. But right now, the climate is good and very often on Heartburn Tuesday, nobody comes up with anything.

We also talk about what brings joy. If you like to knit, if you like to sing, if you like to run or ride a bike, you really need to do it, because during the pandemic, we put a lot of that away because we had no time. Now, we're encouraging them to get back to whatever it is that they'd like to do.

If your cup is empty, you can't really help anybody else. You need to fill your cup to be effective and do the best work that you can.

HL: You are part of the Northwell Health Nurse Choir, which appeared in season 16 of America's Got Talent and made it all the way into the Top 10. Was that a way to fill your cup?

Mele: I always want the people that work with me and for me to understand how much they are appreciated, and that was one of the things we tried to do with America's Got Talent. It was about the singing, too, but it was really about saying, "We need you. We love you. You're important."  

So many of the emails and Instagram messages we got were from people who were losing hope, and as crazy as it sounds, some of our journey really helped a lot of people. We did live Instagrams where people were sending in messages saying, "I really was in a dark place, and I look forward to every Tuesday to hear all you singing nurses. It just makes me feel better. It makes me feel good."

HL: So how do you fill your cup?

Mele: I love music. I always have music on, and I love to sing. I have a tremendous family. I have a lot of siblings, a lot of nieces and nephews, and I have three sons that I adore and they're very connected to me. I love to walk on the treadmill, and I love to golf—I went golfing with two of my boys last Sunday—so I try to do things that make me feel good and I'm trying to stay healthy. I'm also a woman of faith; I find that's very comforting to me.

I try to live in the world of gratitude because I think when you're grateful, a lot of stress and things go away. I feel like I'm in a very good place. I struggle but I love going to work too because it gives me a mission. And the nice thing is all of a sudden, I get on a plane to go sing with the Northwell Health Nurse Choir. So, I really have a lot of things in my life to keep me positive and keep me on my mission.

“I believe caretaking is in my DNA. I do it at work and I do it at home.”

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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