Nearly every day for the past 32 years, registered nurse Jennifer Rentz has spent her days at the Douglas County Hospital as the coordinator of the cardiac rehabilitation program.
But Friday, March 24, marks her last day in the role, as she is retiring.
In looking back at her career, Rentz says that even from a young age, she knew she wanted to be a nurse.
"It started as a young girl," she said. "I was really interested in nursing. I had a desire to help people and felt it was a calling."
Rentz received her associate's degree in nursing from North Dakota State University. She then worked in Minnesota at hospitals in Watertown and Shakopee, which is where her interest in cardiac patients began.
"I was very interested in heart patients," she said. "I went on and took some basic EKG classes, and learned how to interpret EKGs and rhythm."
In October of 1980, Rentz began working at the Douglas County Hospital. Four years later, the hospital decided to begin a cardiac rehabilitation program for patients recovering from heart attacks, undergoing heart transplants or dealing with heart failure. Due to her interest and knowledge in cardiology, Rentz was asked to serve as the coordinator.
"Years ago when people had heart attacks, they would be discharged from the hospital and told to go home and sit in the La-Z-Boy chair and do nothing," she said. "We found that patients didn't do well with that."
This is why the cardiac rehabilitation program was introduced. The program serves to help those with heart issues recover and lead as close to a normal life as possible.
Over the past 32 years, Rentz has observed changes in medicine, specifically in cardiac procedures and medications.
"Years ago, people had bypass surgery if it was appropriate," she said. "Now if they can put a stent in, those people typically recover a lot quicker because they don't have that big incision. The newest thing now is valve replacements, which can be done by putting a catheter into the groin, instead of cutting the chest open. Recovery is a lot quicker with those types of procedures."
In developing the cardiac rehab program, Rentz says the most rewarding experiences have been seeing the patients bond.
"The camaraderie they get from each other here in cardiac rehab is so important," she said. "I think that's so helpful that they can listen to the other patients and see how well they're doing. It kind of motivates them and gives them hope that they are going to do OK and get stronger."
She also enjoys being able to forge relationships with patients and see them improve over the course of the program.
"After their crisis or cardiac event, they lose their health initially, their independence, they're feeling anxious, scared, depressed," she said. "So being that person to help them through that, cheer them on, to guide them is probably one of the most important parts of cardiac rehab."
Though Rentz has seen many patients improve, she says that's not how every case has ended.
"The hardest thing is as I see people coming back," she said. "The disease progresses, things are changing, and eventually it's probably going to take their life. It's hard seeing that their
quality of life is less because of the disease progressing."
Though she knew it was time to retire, Rentz will miss her position at the hospital.
"I'll miss my coworkers, and I'll definitely miss the patients," she said. "You really get to know them, even on a personal basis. I think just building that relationship, not having that will be hard. I'll miss those patients."
In retirement, Rentz plans to travel and spend time with her husband.