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A 'champion' caregiver: Gaea Blue retiring after long health care career

Gaea Blue, CEO of Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital and Avera Weskota Manor in Wessington Springs, stands for a photo inside the hospital's Emergency Room. (Matt Gade / Republic)

WESSINGTON SPRINGS — Gaea Blue can easily recall one night, around midnight, as she looked out her eastward window, seeing the shining lights of the National Guard pulling into her small town.

Light after light passed, as the guard pulled into Wessington Springs in June 2014 — after a tornado tore up the town.

This was the biggest disaster event Blue, a former nurse, experienced in her nearly 50 years of being in health care. And certainly the largest since she took over as the administrator and CEO of Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital and Weskota Manor in Wessington Springs 10 years ago.

The tornado that ripped through Springs is one of many stories Blue shares from her 10 years in the Jerauld County town. And she'll have more to share during her retirement open house celebration today from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the hospital community room. A short program will be held at 2 p.m.

Blue will retire from her full-time employment today, but will continue on a part-time basis as administrator at Weskota Manor Avera through this fall, allowing the new administrator time to be licensed.

"I have enjoyed it," 71-year-old Blue said about her nearly five decades in the field. "There's been tremendous changes over the years ... I've just had many opportunities to do things."

A coach, nurse, mentor

Since Blue was a little girl, she dreamed of being a nurse.

Her mother was a nurse, and the profession was the only job she ever considered. Growing up in her small town of Iroquois, she graduated from high school and then attended Augustana University for a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1969.

From there she worked in various roles as a nurse and nurse educator across the country. In 1998 she earned her master's degree in health care administration from the University of Minnesota. From there, the opportunities sprouted.

She quickly made her way to the top, earning a position as the vice president of patient care services at Huron Regional Medical Center in Huron.

But it was in 2008 when she heard the administrator of the Wessington Springs facilities was moving on, she knew she had to apply.

And she got it, and she's been in Springs ever since as the CEO.

"Yes, who would've thought?" she said, laughing.

Blue's husband, Gary, is an attorney in Huron, commuting 40 miles every day from Wessington Springs. The couple has four children and four grandchildren.

Although she's the administrator, Blue keeps her nursing license active. While she doesn't work as a nurse, she still oversees the employees who do, and enjoys visiting with residents of the nursing home and interacting with patients.

"Just making a difference and helping people," Blue said about her favorite aspect of the job. "That part I liked in nursing, and it still stays with me. I don't work so directly with patients, but I work with staff who work directly with patients, coaching, mentoring, helping make decisions."

Proud moments

In her tenure at Avera, Blue is particularly proud of the hospital's eCARE programs.

Within the past 10 years, the facility has incorporated eEmergency and eHospitalist to better care for the rural community of Wessington Springs with the simple push of a button.

Blue said the Springs facility was the ninth site in the Avera system to go live with eEmergency. Now more than 150 sites have the technology.

"That's where rural medicine, we need that sort of backup support," Blue said. "That's what I'm most proud of."

While 60 percent of her time is spent in the hospital, the remainder is spent in the nursing home facility.

And this past fall, the facility became certified for short-term rehabilitation, admitting their first patient on Dec. 4, 2017. The certification is extremely valuable to the small town, Blue said, allowing more residents to stay within the community.

Between the eCare and short-term rehab certification, Blue feels especially proud and ready to leave her longtime employer.

"It's really nice to have a couple of these things finished," she said, smiling. "Work has been part of my life for a long time, so adjusting to not having work will take some time. I look forward to it and I have plenty of things I plan on doing."

And it's her dedication to obtaining the technology and high-quality care services that have made her a "champion" in the field, according to Tom Clark, the Avera Queen of Peace regional president and CEO to whom Blue reports.

"The incredible amount of medical care that is available to the people of the Wessington Springs area is largely due to her efforts and leadership," he said. "Her calm temperament and honesty have earned her the respect of associates, physicians and patients alike."

Taking over for Blue is Stephanie Reasy. Blue said she and her husband's plans include continuing to live in Wessington Springs, where they've made their home.

"We like the community. Like I said, we're from Iroquois, also a small community," Blue said. "People have been very friendly and we just feel welcome here."