Third-generation nurse Jenifer Phelps says she grew up in the midst of nursing. Her mom worked nights in a nursing home and she’d take her kids to work with her.   

“We’d sleep in an empty room,” she recalls. “We’d go help out in the dining hall and talk to the residents,” she said.

In the summertime, they’d go visit her grandmother, also a nurse, and hang out with her at the nurse’s station on the fairgrounds.

“We were the people always in full PPE,” “It was a hard time for all of us. It took every pair of hands and every shred of energy to care for those patients,”

Jenifer Phelps

Despite that childhood, Phelps’ own journey to her nursing degree and her position as nurse manager for the Medical Intensive Care Unit and Trauma Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Wichita’s Ascension Via Christi St. Francis was filled with obstacles.

“I became a mother at 16,” she said. “I enrolled in the pre-med program at Butler Community College in 2000, thinking I wanted to become a doctor. But I was also working in a bank to earn the money to support my daughter.”

She decided becoming an RN or a nurse practitioner was a more realistic goal, so she switched to Newman University and climbed the career ladder at her banking job.

“The hours were convenient for me,” she said. “I married and had two more daughters, all the while juggling school full time and working full time. At one point, I had seven kids in the house – my own girls, a stepson, and three nieces that I took care of for a period of time.”

After finally getting her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Newman in 2013, she became a staff nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at St. Francis.

She was promoted to Medical Intensive Care Unit nurse manager in December 2018 and was in the role in late 2019 when the first wave of COVID-19 hit.

Facing Down COVID

Phelps’ unit was converted to the COVID ICU and she found herself managing and motivating the nurses on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We were the people always in full PPE,” she said. “It was a hard time for all of us. It took every pair of hands and every shred of energy to care for those patients,” she said.

But it was in the midst of that stress, Phelps said, that she realized this work was more than a job to her. It was a calling.

“I know this is where I am supposed to be and I am so glad I belong here. I’m not above taking out the trash or changing bed linens. I have to be out there to make sure that my nurses are getting everything they need.”

In mid-March, Phelps was asked to also take on the nurse manager role for the trauma and surgical ICU.

That gives her the demanding job of managing a team of nearly 170 bedside nurses and assistive caregivers.

Active in the Community

Phelps is an active member of the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. In her free time, she loves cooking and recently has begun creating a series of cooking demonstration videos on Facebook. 

She has formed an LLC for a catering company called Her Roots Catering and Eatery, and plans to build the business with her daughters.

She said it’s not part of her native culture to talk about mental health issues, but she wants to change that.

In January 2022, she made a decision to do something for herself to address her own health issues. She underwent bariatric surgery.

“I was up to 280 pounds. I’m 5-foot-4 and I was at the point where my daughter had to buckle my shoes for me. I decided it was time to do something.”

She has lost 110 pounds and gained a tremendous amount of energy. That’s proved helpful on and off the job, where she routinely gets in 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day.

“I’m just energized and ready to tackle whatever comes next,” she says.

P.J. Griekspoor is a semi-retired veteran journalist with 55 years experience in writing and editing in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wichita.  She spent 18 years at the Wichita Eagle...