For 31 years, Sylvia Gollick has worked for St. John’s Lutheran Ministries in Billings.
It’s fair to say that her duties over three decades have grown as much as the West End campus itself.
Once a part-time registered nurse, Gollick will retire on Friday as vice president of health services for the faith-based nonprofit corporation that cares primarily for older adults. Gollick has spent her entire career at St. John’s.
She calls the journey one filled with faith and a determination to give the thousands of patients she’s worked with over the years the best care.
“When you find a job that complements your own core values or your personal philosophy, that’s such a special place,” Gollick, 63, said during an interview at St. John’s. “I think you need to grab it and hang on to it with both hands.”
Gollick did not plan to go into medicine when she first considered her career options. The Billings native was drawn toward art and had planned to go to school in New York City.
Then her father became critically ill, and she decided she couldn’t leave Billings. A close friend applied to St. Vincent Hospital’s School of Nursing, and Gollick did the same.
She graduated in 1969. A photo from back then shows her in a white uniform with a white cap that all nurses wore.
Gollick was pulled not only to the science of nursing but also to the art.
“It is understanding human vulnerability,” she said, echoing words she’s heard from St. John’s CEO Kent Burgess. “He says our mission here is to lift the lowly high, and that can be the depressed, the lonely, people that feel helpless, people that are ill, people that are approaching the end of their lives.”
Gollick didn’t go straight from nursing school to St. John’s. She married David Gollick, had three children and for the next decade turned her attention to being a wife and mother.
But she always wondered if she would make a good nurse. In 1979, she took a job three evenings a week as a nurse at the West End nursing home.
She figured she would stay long enough to get some experience and then apply for a hospital job.
“I planned to go to St. Vincent, but fell in love with this kind of work,” Gollick said. “And I found we need good nurses in long-term care.”
She also found that she loved the people she was working with, as well as the elderly population they served. About nine months after she was hired, she was asked to fill in as evening house supervisor.
A year or two later, in the early 1980s, Gollick was invited to become assistant director of nursing. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave direct care behind.
“I was on a wing, I had a wonderful staff and the people in the nursing home, they are so precious,” she said. “They have heritage and wisdom and so much to share with us.”
She worried that as assistant director of nursing she would be swamped by paperwork and administrative duties. But then she thought that if she could affect the lives of 36 elders on her wing in her present role, she might be able to touch the lives of 186 residents in her new one.
“So I tried it and have never been sorry for that,” she said.
About five years later, she was named director of nursing, and then, three years ago was promoted to vice president of health services. With that her supervision expanded to include nursing, pharmacy, rehab, the dietitians, medical records and the transitional care unit cottage.
As she looks back at her time at St. John’s, Gollick reflects on the changes. The traditional nursing home still exists, although it has been updated.
But living arrangements have grown to include independent living apartments, assisted living and more secure quarters for people with Alzheimer’s. Cottages where residents can set their own schedules are a far cry from the more rigid original nursing home model, she said.
And the age range of people on the campus also has grown.
“One of the greatest things we ever did was to implement a child-day-care center for our employees and also for the community,” Gollick said. “We probably have close to 150 children of all ages, from infancy to after-school programs, and when you turn that many children loose in a long-term care facility, you have spontaneity and laughter.”
She said she’s thankful for the experience, to the organization’s residents and staff, the administrators and the board of directors.
“I’ll be forever thankful that I was hired here,” Gollick said. “And the reason is St. John’s is a very special organization. It’s all about mission and the ministry to the elders and the staff.”
She’s looking forward to fishing and hiking and spending more time with family, including five grandchildren and another one on the way. But Gollick won’t completely give up St. John’s. She plans to spend some time as a volunteer.
But with a new season unfolding outside, she said it’s time for a new season in her own life.
“You just know when the time is right, I think,” Gollick said. “And I love the spring. It’s my favorite time of the year, and it’s just a perfect time.”