This week Deaconess Medical Center is losing a legendary employee. After 51 years on staff, Evelyn Torkelson is retiring.
“Anybody that has worked 51 years at the same place and has the love and admiration of everybody she’s worked with, in my view is a legend,” said pediatric surgeon Jim Fischer. “Every job she does, she does meticulously, and she works hard at everything she does. She could have been the CEO.”
Torkelson, 73, said she was drawn to a medical career as a curious child who would ask the doctor, “What are you doing? Why? What is going to happen? Show me.”
“Our hometown doc said, ‘You need to go into medicine and get all your answers,’ so I went into nursing,” she recalled.
In 1962, she came to Deaconess as a staff nurse but her career has shifted many times over the decades. She’s worked in all parts of the hospital, from surgery, radiology and neurology to administration, patient care, rural health services, physician recruitment and special projects.
“As a nurse, if you’re open to learning you can learn a lot of new roles,” she said. “I’ve always worked hard at trying to be a good listener and be flexible because then you learn from others. There’s always more than one way to do something. I’ve learned everybody has an important role in what happens. Everybody takes care of the patient in the hospital.”
During her tenure, Torkelson helped oversee many projects and improvements, like facilitating the Ronald McDonald House project on Deaconess property, implementing the outpatient surgery center, expanding rural facility membership in the Deaconess Heart Network and recruiting more than 100 physicians to the hospital.
Chief of medical staff Vann Schaffner, for example, met Torkelson when he interviewed with the hospital’s pathology group in 2006.
With characteristic organization, efficiency and warmth, Torkelson arranged his interviews and itinerary, showed him around town and introduced him to a real estate agent.
“It certainly made it a friendly place,” he said, noting that though she had a family emergency at the time, Torkelson ensured everything ran smoothly.
“She made sure every single, little detail was taken care of. That’s Evelyn. She doesn’t leave anything undone. No loose ends. No loose strings,” Schaffner said.
Torkelson’s organizational skills were instrumental in helping the hospital obtain certifications for its total joint, chest pain and stroke programs, Schaffner said.
“She gets things done. She knows everybody in the facility and knows what needs to be done and then she bird-dogs things and makes sure that there is follow through and gets things moved onto completion,” said Schaffner, adding that Torkelson’s decades at Deaconess give her invaluable institutional knowledge.
“She’s been around long enough she understands the facilities people, the nursing people, the doctor people, the contract people and the executive suite people,” he said. “She knows all the pieces that you need to get together to get something done.”
During her career, Torkelson also developed a reputation for remembering details, in part because she writes everything down.
“She has a really good memory. She never forgets anything,” said safety coordinator Pam Patrick, describing how Torkelson always carries a pen, often in an outfit-matching hue. “She writes everything down. If she wears a purple jacket she has a purple pen in her pocket.”
That attention to detail, said hospital staff, was matched by Torkelson’s people skills.
“She knows everything and everybody and has tact and decorum and knows how to apply pressure when she needs to,” said Jon Ween, stroke program director. “She is the grand dame of Spokane medicine. Hopefully she’ll hang around and be a resource for everybody, even though she is retired.”
In fact, Torkelson plans to return next week as a volunteer in the patient concierge program she launched last fall to ensure patients are guided through their care at the hospital.
“Next week I’ll become a volunteer and be doing the same things,” said Torkelson, noting she’s stayed at Deaconess 51 years because it’s like family. “I’ve always felt a part of the family and the philosophy of trying to provide the highest quality of care, taking care of patients like they were your family. That’s what’s kept me here.”
Torkelson has been married nearly 50 years. She has three children and numerous grandchildren.
“She’s an amazing person, and I’m thrilled to have her become a volunteer,” said volunteer coordinator Jennifer Tucker. “It really speaks to her dedication to our hospital.”
“We’re going to lose somebody that’s not replaceable,” Fischer said. “I can’t think of anybody in my career that has done the same thing and made such a positive impact on a city and a health care system. She’s going to be missed.”