Medicine's Mentors: Eric Wolak

In our next installment of Medicine's Mentors, Eric Wolak, MSN, MHA, RN, NEA-BC, opens up about his mentors from the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and the CTICU at UNC Hospitals to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle and back to Chapel Hill, where today he serves as director of medicine and oncology services at UNC Hospitals.

Eric Wolak, a native of Havelock, North Carolina, attended UNC as an undergraduate, where he majored in English and minored in Chemistry. He intended to go to medical school, but after volunteering at UNC Hospitals and learning about the possibilities within the nursing profession, he decided to attend the UNC School of Nursing.

Early in nursing school, Wolak learned from a peer about the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.

“I heard it was a great place for learning, and an interesting environment with a unique and challenging patient population,” says Wolak.

Between his first and second year of nursing school, Wolak was assigned clinical hours at the Burn Center. He loved it so much that it was the only place he applied to upon graduation.

Wolak spent four years at the Burn Center as a bedside nurse before transitioning to clinical education responsibilities for two years and then transitioned to  the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) at UNC Hospitals. After two years on the CTICU, he moved to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, where he managed a 16-bed Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. His last two years in Seattle he managed the CICU and the Emergency Department and earned his MHA at the University of Washington. He returned to UNC Hospitals in 2013 as Director of Medicine and Oncology services.

Wolak is an adjunct faculty member at the UNC School of Nursing. 

Watch Wolak's video above and read several additional quotes below to learn more about the role mentorship has played in his professional development and what makes mentorship at UNC Health Care unique.   

Mentor Collage
(L-R) Mary Tonges, PhD, RN, FAAN, NEA-BC, former Chief Nursing Officer, UNC Hospitals; Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, N.C. Jacyee Burn Center Outreach Coordinator; and Meghan McCann, MSN, RN, NE-BC, Director of Cancer Services, UNC Medical Center.

Wolak on Ernest Grant
"I remember vividly feeling overwhelmed one day early in my career and Ernest reminded me that however bad a day I’m having, the patient is having a much worse day. I always remember that. Even today, when I’m having a bad day, feeling I can’t get my work done fast enough, and getting bombarded with tasks to do, I think about the patient and that I’m lucky to be having the day I’m having and that it’s an honor and privilege to take care of them."

Wolak on encouragement from Ernest Grant
"Because of Ernest, I was able to go beyond the care of patients on my shift to wanting to improve the Burn Center culture and unit as a whole. I became very active in committees on the Burn Center, and that was a big part of my professional development. Nursing is much bigger than taking care of patients – you can improve patient care by improving culture."

Wolak on Meghan McCann
"Ernest had a very positive impact on me as a professional nurse and Meghan showed me what it’s like to be a true leader in a unit. She was very visible on the CTICU. She spent a lot of time at the nursing station and was very open. I would describe her as an authentic leader and also a very transformational leader. She had a vision for the unit. She did not assign tasks; she delegated projects and gave staff autonomy to do what they needed to do to achieve those project goals. When I was in Seattle a few years later we spoke monthly by phone to talk about the challenges I was having and how she would approach them as a manager."

Wolak on investment in others
"For me, nursing became very much part of my self-identity because of the personal investment people made in me. People gave me the time and the bandwidth to be able to work towards goals I was interested in. If I was interested in certification, I was encouraged and supported. If I wanted to spearhead a project, my bosses, especially Meghan, made sure that I had time to work on those projects. They gave me support, checked in on me, and watched for any barriers I may be encountering. I was able to work on projects that made the unit and patient care better, and that afforded me the opportunity to understand and see what I could do with that RN after my name and how I could contribute to the better care of these patients."

Wolak on seeking new professional experiences
"People are usually hesitant to tell their boss that they want to try something new. Meghan and I had a very different relationship. I told her very early once I started looking that I want to be a nurse manager and she wholeheartedly encouraged me and supported me. She would have loved for me to stay at UNC, but she also understood that I needed something new. I’d been at UNC as an undergraduate and nursing student, done my clinicals at UNC, and needed change. She respected that and wanted me to accomplish my goals."

Wolak on the mentorship program he created in the CTICU
"My thesis as a Master’s student in nursing was on mentorship. I’d noticed that the literature on mentorship is virtually always about the mentee and rarely on what mentorship did for the mentor. So, as part of my thesis, I paired experienced clinical nurses with new graduate nurses for a year. We required them to work on a project together and to meet once a month. At the end, I did a focus group with all the mentors and mentees and asked them one set of almost identical questions. I compared the answers and what I found was that mentors actually gained as much from that relationship as the mentees, and that really hadn’t been described in the literature very much."

Wolak on Patti Clausen, former Nurse Executive at Swedish Medical Center (today Clausen is Chief Nurse Executive at Kaiser Permanente Downey)
"Patti said to do what I wanted to do on the unit as far as projects and process improvement, but to let her know what I was doing and why I think it’s important to invest time and energy into it….Patti taught me that every day is a good day, even if stressful. She taught me that we can find  the positive about every day and to look for that. She also showed me that, at the end of the day, the unit is part of a bigger organization. The organization has goals and sometimes as a leader you have to understand that these organizational goals are bigger than what you want to do for my unit. So you may have to implement a program or a process change on your unit that you may not personally like or agree with but it’s your job to support it and implement it effectively because its part fits into the bigger organizational goal. She helped me understand that approach to leadership and the big picture of balancing unit and organizational needs."

Wolak on Dr. Mary Tonges, former Chief Nursing Officer at UNC Hospitals
"Dr. Tonges really helped me create a vision for my service line and how to guide my managers to that vision to make sure we’re all aligned, but at the same time give them space to operationalize to whatever fits their unit culture. At first that was difficult because I thought, ‘I know how to fix this -- we’ll just do it this way.’ But it’s not my unit. It’s my manager’s unit, and she helped me understand that I need to give them space to accomplish that. My job as a director is to create a vision -- to help break down walls or barriers they may encounter, to help give them guidance to reach that vision but not to manage them."

Wolak on being mentored today
"My mentor relationships have been more informal in nature recently. I still meet frequently with Meghan McCann and Ernest Grant and I have dinner once a month. I consider them both peers and mentors. Especially as a new director, I went to Meghan a lot to ask questions about challenges I was encountering."

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