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Debbie Shook Retires After More Than Four Decades with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System

Debbie Shook Looks Back on a Long Career of Serving Patients in the High Country

Debbie Shook Photo submitted.

More than 42 years ago – when nurses all wore white uniforms, white shoes and nursing caps – Debbie Shook began her nursing career at Watauga Medical Center (WMC) in the Medical Surgical Units. This week, she is closing the chapter on her professional life as she retires and says goodbye to her co-workers and patients at Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center, where she has served as the Director of Oncology Clinical Services and Research for the past four years. 

Since May 1980, she has served as a staff nurse in the Medical Surgical Units, night shift in the Emergency Department, night shift House Supervisor, and Nursing Director for the Medical Surgical Units. In 2003, she took the position as Director of Nursing Quality Improvement. And in 2015, she began working closely with the staff at Seby B. Jones Cancer Center, which helped her transition to her most recent role. 

In addition to individual achievements like earning her Master of Science in Nursing Administration, Shook has also worked on teams that have made contributions impacting major improvements in local healthcare. For instance, she served as the Stroke Coordinator for WMC and played an integral role on the team that helped achieve the initial Primary Stroke Center Certification. 

Over the past four decades, Shook has witnessed so much change in healthcare in the High Country and her memory is long. She says the biggest change she has been part of is growth. 

“When I began my career – the hospital was very small consisting of two floors. Three-West was the medical unit and Two-West was the surgical floor. The operating room and obstetric unit were located on the second floor. The critical care units were at the end of the halls. Pharmacy was on first floor where the cafeteria is now. Through the years we have seen several additions to the hospital – a new “East Wing” in the early 80s, The Birthing Center, Critical Care Unit, new emergency department, and many more improvements through the years. Cannon Memorial became part of our system. We are currently moving into a brand new, state of the art bed tower. The growth I have seen has been tremendous. How fortunate we are for our current and past leadership who have supported growth and exceptional healthcare options for our community,” she says. 

“One of the major changes that impacted both the hospital staff and patients was the transition to the hospitalist program. The transition of not seeing the family physician or surgeon while in the hospital was not easy for many patients and was an adjustment for nurses. One of the great advantages I have seen from the hospitalist program is that the physician is on site for emergencies, and they are a strong member of the patient care team.    As we work with the on-site physicians, nurses are treated as colleagues with excellent assessment skills who have the ability to make concrete observations and provide valuable suggestions – they are respected and not ‘just there to follow orders’ as it was often perceived in the early years of my career. Rounds with the entire patient care team is common practice today and the contributions of all team members to the patient’s care is recognized.”

Shook has also witnessed many advancements in technology throughout her long tenure. “Computers became part of the workflow in the 90s for patient admissions and around 2013 bedside computer charting of assessments became available. Today we depend on functioning technology for patient care to flow smoothly. The complexity of nursing has changed immensely during my career. The advances in technology have been amazing – but with all the changes I have seen, the true meaning of nursing – the caring, the touch, the listening to patients is of the utmost importance.” 

Like many healthcare workers, Shook has had a frontline perspective on national and global health crises like epidemics and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have seen ‘epidemics’ through the years – In the 1980’s we saw the AIDS crisis. When I began nursing, it was not unusual to start an IV or give an injection without using gloves. Now it is unheard of to perform any procedure without protective equipment. We prepared for the Ebola epidemic – staff received lots of education and training and prepared Ebola carts in the event we had a patient present with symptoms. I am very thankful that we prepared but were not faced with cases in our facility. 

“Then along came 2020, the COVID pandemic – I do not have to tell you about the challenges because we have lived and are living it. I believe that the COVID crisis has been the greatest challenge for healthcare during the 42 years I have worked in healthcare. I have observed great teamwork and resilience in the staff and providers in our system – I am especially grateful to the Cancer Center staff and to our patients who have faced and continue to face this challenge with bravery and support for each other as we take care to minimize exposure and keep each other safe.”

“Debbie Shook’s dedication to ARHS for the last 42 years is amazing. She has given so much to our patients, our team, and the community. Debbie was invaluable during the transition to my role in the middle of a pandemic. Debbie is a mentor but more importantly a dear friend. She will be missed,” said Ken Neuvirth, Senior Director of Oncology at Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center. 

Amy Freeman, Cancer Registrar & Clinical Research Coordinator, says “I have worked with Debbie Shook for the past several years at the Cancer Center. While she has been my supervisor, I also call her a friend. She is compassionate to patients and staff alike. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to work with Debbie and learn from her wealth of knowledge. While I will definitely miss her presence and unique sense of humor at work, I am so happy for her and this new chapter in her life.” 

Though Shook will also miss her patients, staff and providers she works with, she says she is ready to spend time with her husband (lovingly called “Mr. Shook”) who will also be retiring soon. She plans to spend her time with family, find new hobbies, and maybe even learn to quilt. 

“We look forward to restful mornings when the alarm clock does not define getting up time. I want to become more active in community events and continue to care for people in different ways,” she says.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with Appalachian Regional for the past 42 years. My memories are wonderful – there has been laughter, there have been tears. Working with patients and caring for them and their families brings me joy. Working with the staff, ‘my friends,’ has been a blessing. When you love what you do, work doesn’t feel like work. Thank you to each of the staff I work with and have worked with through the years for making me happy to show up every day for the last four decades.”