Forty years ago, Teresa Stoderl was at a fork in the road, and there was a good chance that there would be potatoes at the end of that fork.
Stoderl had just applied for two very different jobs, and thus was facing one of two very different possible futures. She was hoping for a call back from the Perham nursing home, where she wanted to be a nursing assistant. But the odds were 50/50 that she would get a call from the local potato farm first, and would end up picking potatoes instead.
Whether it be the fields or the infirmary, she was open to whatever hand fate dealt her.
Fortunately for the scores of local patients and their families who have come to know and adore Stoderl since then, the nursing home made the first call.
Today, Stoderl laughs while telling that story to her patients.
“To this day, I’m still glad the nursing home called me first,” she says, “because I’m not one to leave a job and could still be picking potatoes! I am one of those people who doesn't really quit things that I start…but I wanted to be a nurse.”
That first job as a nursing assistant kicked off a long and rewarding career in healthcare for Stoderl. After four years in that role, she went back to school to become a Licensed Practical Nurse, and she’s been caring for patients in that capacity ever since. After stints at clinics in New York Mills and Detroit Lakes, Stoderl returned to the Perham nursing home in 1985, and enjoyed a 32-year career there. She just recently switched over into a new role at the KLN/Shearer’s Offsite Clinic, working as a nurse and lab technician.
“When I told some of my (Perham Living) residents I was leaving, they burst into tears,” she says. “I reassured them that I would still come and visit. They said they understood, but it was an emotional day.”
Stoderl liked to go “above and beyond” her regular duties at Perham Living, she says, to make the residents laugh and feel at home. She’d often make bread pudding with them, and caramel rolls, and she led Funnoodle exercise sessions every Sunday. One Easter, she rented and wore a bunny costume, delivering chocolate kisses to the home’s nearly 100 residents.
She got to know each resident as not only a patient, but a person.
“She gives a personal touch to all the people she encounters,” says LPN Sandy Frost, a nurse at Perham Living who worked with Stoderl for a number of years. “She went above and beyond to make sure that each person was well taken care of. Not just one person, but each person. It wasn’t just a job for her. She’s very caring, very kind and very personable.”
Stoderl has touched “hundreds and hundreds” of lives over the span of her nursing career, she estimates, but she says “they all touched me” in return. She still remembers most of their names.
“They’re all special people,” she says. “All of them are so unique. It seems like you get back from them just as much as you're giving.”
Stoderl was born with a nurturing instinct. She grew up on the Hagel family farm in rural New York Mills, a middle child amongst five kids. She liked to help take care of her siblings, the older ones as well as the younger ones, and also enjoyed special, caring relationships with some of her elderly neighbors.
“I always felt compassionate toward people who were sick, and the elderly,” she says. “When I was three years old…my aunt said that I would be a nurturer someday. She was right.”
But it was another nurse that ultimately inspired Stoderl to join the profession. The nurse who cared for her and her newborn son, Jaric, after his birth made such a positive impression on Stoderl that it helped her realize her calling. She wanted to make that same kind of deep, uplifting impact on people.
Years later, it’s safe to say she’s achieved that.
“The relationships I’ve gained over the years… I’ve taken care of up to three generations of the same family,” she says. “I run into people all the time in public and they remember me, and it’s just fun. You get to know the residents and the families, so it’s been very rewarding. For me it was never about the paycheck, it was about being there for people.”
Stoderl has influenced not only the people at Perham Living, but also the very kind and quality of care they receive. When she started there in 1977, she recalls, “it was very different; very institutional.” There were long white hallways and residents were often lined up against the walls. Everything was scheduled for them, with little room for flexibility. That was just how things were done at nursing homes everywhere then.
But about 15 years ago, the Perham nursing home became one of the first in the nation to transition to a patient-centered model of care. Residents could wake up and go to bed on their own schedules and eat when they wanted to, and social gatherings became a regular part of their weeks. Unlike before, nurses were encouraged to form interpersonal relationships with the residents, and the nursing home itself was redesigned to feel more welcoming and inviting, more like an actual home.
Stoderl helped to pilot the program, easing residents and employees through the transition and then, a few years later, sharing Perham Living’s story with other nursing homes across the country in hopes of spreading the success. Giving presentations in front of big crowds took Stoderl out of her comfort zone, she says, but it felt meaningful. She believes in patient-centered care and would like to see all nursing homes embrace it.
“Years ago, they'd tell you not to get too attached to patients,” she says. “But now it's different. Now they want you to treat them more like family, and it's more comfortable for everybody. I think it's very positive. It gives people things to look forward to, and they want to keep healthier and happier. They're treated more like a human being than a number and a piece of paper.”
After all the energy and love that Stoderl poured into Perham Living, “it just about broke her heart” to leave, according to her sister, Brenda Hill, but the opening at the KLN/Shearer’s clinic felt like the right opportunity at the right time.
Stoderl says she was feeling ready to learn new things and do something different before the time comes for her to retire, and the clinic job offered her that chance. There, she sees patients of all ages and works directly with a nurse practitioner to promote wellness and preventive care. She also does some lab work. She made the move Jan. 23, and has been enjoying it.
She’s also working one weekend a month at Lakeland Hospice in Fergus Falls, providing end-of-life care for patients and helping their families cope.
“I find it very rewarding,” Stoderl says of hospice care. “I have the perspective of both a family member and a nurse, so families appreciate that.”
Stoderl helped care for a brother eight years ago before his passing from colon cancer, and then more recently took care of her mother as she reached the end of a long battle with breast cancer.
While these experiences have been “difficult,” Stoderl says, “it’s rewarding to be there for people.”
That’s part of the reason why she’s still there for the people at Perham Living. She goes back to the nursing home about once a week to visit with residents, reassuring them that, “Just because I’m not going to work there anymore doesn’t mean we can’t be friends forever.”
Her more open work schedule is allowing her to spend additional time with her husband, John Ebersviller, and her son and grandkids. She likes to hang out at their lake cabin, go walking, and do different projects around the house.
Five years from now, she says, “I hope to still be working as a nurse, because it’s who I am. I like working with patients and helping out. I like to bring joy to others.”