Nancy (Gildehaus) Eckelkamp knows her children are teasing when they call her the “Walmart greeter” of Mercy Hospital Washington.
As the patient family liaison at the hospital’s surgery center in Washington, her job is to welcome people when they arrive, direct them to where they need to be and, if they are having surgery, she keeps the family updated on the progress, assigns them pagers so they can be notified of information and just stays in close contact with them throughout the procedure.
Eckelkamp, who has a way of putting people at ease, does far more than just “greet” people. She helps alleviate their fears and concerns.
A nun who recently came through the facility described Eckelkamp as “the face of Mercy.”
“I don’t see it that way,” Eckelkamp said, humbly. “I am just the person blessed to be able to do what I love best every day, help people.”
She has been doing that now for 50 years.
Eckelkamp joined the hospital team March 22, 1969, back when it was still St. Francis Hospital and located in what is now the north doctors building.
She was 15 years old and a student at St. Francis Borgia High School when she was hired in the housekeeping department. Her job was to clean the patient rooms, everything from the beds to the tables to the walls.
Eckelkamp credits her neighbor, Dorothy Richardson, who worked at the hospital, with getting her the job interview. That was a nerve-racking experience, she said, recalling how the personnel director was actually a patient in the hospital at the time, so the interview was conducted in a patient room.
Eckelkamp worked on the second floor where elderly patients were kept. She remembers often arriving for her shift to find 10 to 12 patient beds in the hallway waiting for their rooms to be ready.
“That was my job, to clean all those beds,” she said. “And by the next day, they’d be all full again so we’d do the whole process over.”
Eckelkamp worked a few days after school (3:30 to 6 p.m.), on the weekends and all through the summer Her work shift was 3:30 to 6 p.m.
“I worked as much as I could,” she said. “At that time, Borgia High School wasn’t that expensive, but with six kids in the family . . . ”
Eckelkamp, who was the second-born child and the oldest daughter of Margaret and Ervin Gildehaus, Washington, worked to have money to buy many of the extra things she wanted.
Early on she knew that she had found a good fit working in the hospital. She knew the work she was doing was important, and she enjoyed interacting with the patients.
“I got too close to the patients sometimes. The first time someone passed away who had been there for a while, I came home and cried and cried,” said Eckelkamp.
“I couldn’t do a lot for them, except I could talk with them. I could get them water.”
Once she was a little older and working as the manager of the housekeeping department, Eckelkamp realized how beneficial those interactions with patients could be.
“I always told the ladies, we are the least imtimidating people there for them . . . they would tell us things they wouldn’t even tell the nurse, and a lot of times we could forward that information to the nurse, and it was pertinent to their care.”
Eckelkamp, who said she never felt smart enough to become a nurse, said she loved being able to help patients in that way.
“I’d always tell people, ‘I’m just a housekeeper,’ but as I grew into it, I knew we were just as important as the next person was,” said Eckelkamp.
Moves Up the Ranks
From the start, Eckelkamp was a fast learner, hard worker and took pride in her work. She was promoted to secretary of the housekeeping department in 1973, meaning she was in charge of scheduling and time cards, in addition to still doing some of the hands-on cleaning.
She was again promoted to supervisor in 1976 and then manager in 1994.
The hospital was expanding and was actually relocated to its current location during this time. The cleanliness of the hospital was always critical.
“When I got into management, I told the ladies, ‘They can’t do without us. We are a big part of the hospital,’ ” said Eckelkamp. “We always had the lowest infection control rate, and we were proud of that.”
The cleaning had to be thorough, and if it wasn’t, they had to do the work again until it was right.
“In the nursery, we had to wash it from top to bottom once a month,” Eckelkamp recalled. “Every bassinet, every wall, every ceiling. And then it would get cultured, and it would have to pass. If it didn’t, you would be washing it all over again.”
Rooms that had patients with something like tuberculosis or meningitis had to be treated with a “fog” treatment.
“You would tape the whole room off, and there was a big machine that you would put in the room, seal all the doors shut,” said Eckelkamp. “That was a three- or four-hour process . . . and if the cultures came back with something, you would be doing it again.”
Even as a manager, Eckelkamp still often found herself doing the hands-on cleaning work in her heels and pearls. Her co-workers called her June Cleaver, she said, with a laugh.
In the early 2000s, Eckelkamp transferred to the Health Information Services (medical records) department.
“I worked a lot with the doctors making sure they got their records done on time,” said Eckelkamp, who credits her co-workers in the HIS department for helping her learn the job. “I had to check their records to make sure they had their histories and physicals done, their surgical notes, because some were on a timely manner that had to be done.”
When Mercy opened its new surgery center, Eckelkamp was recommended for a new position that was being created — patient family liaison. It was a role that had previously been filled by volunteers when the surgery department was located on the second floor. Now Eckelkamp has a volunteer who works with her daily to do the job.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers,” she said, proudly. “They do a great job.”
Eckelkamp jokes that some days her job feels a little bit like an air traffic controller, because she is so often helping people get to the right place, but that itself is a great feeling.
“I joke that I am like an air traffic controller,” she said, with a smile. “I enjoy helping them all.”
Years ago when she was in management and had more administrative tasks to do, Eckelkamp missed being able to work more with people and engage with patients. Now she does that daily, and she couldn’t be happier.
Awards and Recognition
Working at Mercy was something of a family affair for Eckelkamp, whose mother and sister both joined the hospital staff five years after she did. Her mom joined the housekeeping department and put in 30 years before she retired, and her sister, Connie, who currently works in surgery, has 45 years of service to Mercy.
All together that’s 125 years between the three ladies.
Throughout her 50 year career at the hospital, Eckelkamp has received numerous awards in recognition of her work.
Three times she was named Employee of the Month, and in 2001 she was named Employee of the Year.
When she was still housekeeping supervisor, Eckelkamp was recognized for making the Suggestion of the Year. Her suggestion was to redo the printing on the nurse call button since the lettering had worn off on many of the buttons.
In 1996, she received the Spirit of Catherine McAuley Cup of Tea Award in 1996, and in 2004 she was presented with the Making a Difference Award in Health Information Services department.
When the Franklin County Relay For Life was getting started here, Eckelkamp stepped forward to be part of the Mercy team, and one year was the team’s top individual fundraiser, bringing in $2,000.
“It was a lot of fun. We had a good time with the Relay,” said Eckelkamp, noting she was motivated to get involved after seeing patients and co-workers fighting cancer over the years.
Looking out for others is part of Eckelkamp’s nature, so several years back when a program that provided handmade pillows for youth patients coming in for surgery had to be discontinued, she went looking for another option and found it in a book donation program through Michaels craft store. Funds are provided by Michaels customers who are asked when they are checking out if they would like to donate.
Since the program began, more than 500 books have been donated, said Eckelkamp.
She pairs the books with a stuffed animal from the Mercy gift shop and other items like crayons and stickers.
“We try to find something to take their mind off of what they are facing with the surgery,” said Eckelkamp. “It helps the kids not be quite as afraid.”
Back when she worked in housekeeping, Eckelkamp and her co-workers made up Thanksgiving food boxes for about 40 families every year, with the Sisters donating turkeys for each box.
And at Christmastime, Eckelkamp joyfully helped decorate the entire hospital and doctors building.
‘That’s Why We Are Training You’
For many of Eckelkamp’s 50 years working at the hospital, she worked alongside the Sisters of Mercy, women like Sister Michaelanne Estoup, who worked in Washington from ’93 until 2017, when she moved to Catherine’s Residence in St. Louis.
“The Sisters have been a big, big influence on my family,” said Eckelkamp. “Sister Michaelanne Estoup was probably the biggest advocate,” said Eckelkamp. “She’d sit in ICU most days, and if you needed anything or something was going wrong, she would go up to administration and sit in the chair and say, ‘I’m not leaving until I see (the president).’ ”
At one point there were as many as eight Sisters working in the hospital here. Today there are none.
Years ago, Eckelkamp worried about what the hospital would be like without the Sisters, and Sister Michaelanne responded, “That’s why we are training you to be Mercy Associates,” which is a group of women and men who actively engage in a commitment to Mercy. Here in Washington, the Mercy Associates do things like stock the Little Free Pantry outside of the Pregnancy Assistance Center and other things to carry on the mission of the Sisters.
Looking ahead, Eckelkamp feels like that will be her calling one day. She already has a good start.
She is active in her parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, where she serves as a Eucharistic minister, wedding assistant for brides getting married and is treasurer of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Spending time with family has always been a priority for Eckelkamp, beginning with her own siblings.
“Friday night football is our big thing,” she said, noting her brother, Dale Gildehaus, is the longtime Borgia football coach. “For years our ritual was on Friday nights, we would go over to Mom’s. Home or away game, it didn’t make any difference. She’d have dinner for us. We’d tailgate there a little and then we’d all go to the game.”
Even if none of the siblings had a child playing in the game, they’d all go to support their brother, said Eckelkamp.
Now as a grandmother of six (two girls and four boys), Eckelkamp carves out time to spend with her children and their families.
Looking back on her 50 years at Mercy, Eckelkamp said it’s hard to believe an after-school job that she took as a 15-year-old could develop into a lifelong career, but she feels blessed that it did.
“I have enjoyed my time here at Mercy, she said. “I never once dreaded coming in to work.”