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Milwaukee VA Emergency Department earns top honors

Emergency Department staffers at the Milwaukee VA celebrate their Lantern Award.
Emergency Department staffers at the Milwaukee VA celebrate their Lantern Award, given by the Emergency Nurses Association to the best EDs in the country.

The Emergency Department at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center has been named one of the best in the country by the Emergency Nurses Association.

The Milwaukee VA is among 29 emergency departments honored with the prestigious ENA Lantern Award, which is dedicated to showcasing EDs for their outstanding work.

The Milwaukee VA is the only Veterans Affairs hospital to receive the award and the only hospital in Wisconsin to earn the honor, which was announced today (July 13, 2022).

“This is a huge honor,” said Andrea Sharbutt, nurse education coordinator for the ED. “It shows our commitment not only to Veterans but also to our staff … to provide high-quality patient care.”

“It’s so prestigious,” said Mary Degenhardt, assistant nurse manager for the ED. “It really speaks to our staff and all the changes that have taken place. We’ve all done it for the right reasons.”

The ENA Lantern Award was created to recognize emergency departments that demonstrate exceptional and innovative performance in leadership, practice, education, advocacy and research.

When applying, emergency departments share stories that highlight their commitment to care, and the initiatives put in place that improve the well-being of nursing staff. Applications are reviewed and recipients are selected by the ENA Lantern Award Committee.

At the Milwaukee VA, the award is the culmination of years of work at improving the ED and creating a culture that embraces change and continuing education.

“This is truly the best Emergency Department in the VA,” said Ben Thelen, program manager for the Emergency Department. “Our Veterans get the best care, without a doubt.”

Thelen said the award criteria looks at a number of areas, including:

  • Quality of care for patients.
  • Innovation and excellence in nursing.
  • Patient flow — making sure patients are seen efficiently and in a timely manner.
  • Education — keeping current staff trained on the latest processes and techniques and also training new staff.
  • Leadership — not only by supervisors but by staff as well.
  • Advocacy and community outreach.
  • Research.

‘Multi-year journey’

“It’s been a multi-year journey to get here,” he said, noting it was about two years ago — when the COVID pandemic was at its height — that he knew the department was worthy of the award.

“Our staff really stepped up and did a phenomenal job — taking care of patients and continuing to improve their own practice,” he said. “They kept getting better. The outcomes they provide to patients are the best in the VA.”

While the award is from a nurses association, Thelen said collaboration among everyone in the department — including health techs, doctors, social workers and mental health experts — made it possible.

ED nurses agreed, saying the team approach and family atmosphere make the department a special place to work.

“We love to laugh and crack jokes, but when a patient comes in who is critical, it’s like a bumblebee effect: We all go in and work well together,” said Registered Nurse Tanya Rutherford.

“And I think respect is a really big thing,” she said. “We respect each other and respect what we do in taking care of the Veterans. They are truly No. 1.”

“Teamwork is a huge dynamic here and a big factor in the award,” Degenhardt said. “There isn’t a better team out there.”

Rising from ‘rock bottom’

But it wasn’t always like that.

According to Thelen, seven years ago, the ED was “rock bottom” in terms of patient satisfaction. Wait times were high, and there were daily complaints from patients.

But Thelen and the staff set out to change the culture.

A building addition helped increase the bed space in the department, and nurses were empowered to tackle problems and institute solutions.

That continuous education is now ingrained in the department. Nurses research and learn new processes and procedures and share them with their colleagues. There’s an atmosphere of speaking up when problems arise. And the staffers readily support one another.

The changes produced results. Thelen said wait times were reduced by an hour — almost unheard of in emergency departments — and patient satisfaction scores soared.

“Now we’re in the upper 90th percentile across the board,” he said. “It’s been a complete transformation.

“I hired people smarter and better than me who are committed to our mission, and that’s been a big part of our transformation,” he said, noting that the staff is “committed to caring for Veterans. That’s a big part of why we’ve been so successful.

“Our strength lies in change and quality of care. They (Veterans) get good care, and they have good outcomes.”

Change for the better

Kami Fritz, a registered nurse who pushed for better care for female Veterans, said the department has changed radically — and all for the better.

“It’s crazy to think how different it is now to when I first got here (four years ago),” she said. “Everyone’s pretty engaged. They like working here, and they want to be here.”

“I feel like in our department, if you run into a barrier, you can change that. When you have people around you making change, you can do that. And you just keep doing that, and it rubs off on other people.”

Rutherford, a Veteran who worked in emergency departments across Milwaukee before landing at the Milwaukee VA, agreed.

“It’s been absolutely head-turning for me,” she said, noting that one of her jobs is checking on patients after their visit to the ED.

“They love it,” she said. “We get comments like, ‘You guys are wonderful’ and ‘I would never go anywhere else.’

“The Veterans get the care they need here. They feel comfortable coming here and being here. They know they will be taken care of.”

It all goes back to the mission, according to Chelsea Beaty, assistant nurse manager.

“Our nurses exemplify our mission. They are truly here for the Veterans,” she said.

“We’ve really built our team around what we do for our Veterans and providing our nurses with the resources they need to provide excellent care.”

Degenhardt described it as a “perfect storm.”

“We love nursing. We love Veterans, so we work at the VA emergency department, where you get to do that 24 hours a day,” she said.


The 2022 ENA Lantern Award recipients will be recognized during ENA’s annual conference Sept. 30-Oct. 3 in Denver, Colo. Additionally, each emergency department’s award-worthy efforts will be spotlighted in ENA’s member magazine.

See the complete list of Lantern Award winners here.

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