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After attending nursing school together, mom and daughter work one floor apart at Gundersen

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A decade ago, Stephanie McNamer’s daughter watched as she hovered over books and notes at the kitchen table, studying for her initial nursing degree.

Five years later, mother and daughter graduated with BSN degrees less than a year apart, and today work one floor away from each other at Gundersen Health System.

Mother daughter nurses

Gundersen Health System registered nurses, mother and daughter Stephanie McNamer and Sierra O-Shaughnessy have a special bond because of their shared profession.

Sierra O-Shaughnessy, 26, was a teen when mom McNamer, 47, was completing the first part of a 2+2 program, and when McNamer walked the stage at Western Technical College in 2012, she proudly pinned her mom during the ceremony.

McNamer, who earned CNA and OT certifications over a decade prior, worked as a GI technician at Gundersen, and as a high schooler O-Shaughnessy volunteered in the hospital’s lab.

“I watched my mom working in healthcare — she always would talk about it at home and the patient connections she made and the impacts to their lives,” says O-Shaughnessy. “I just really aspired to take that career path as well.”

When O-Shaughnessy decided to study to be a CNA, her mom stressed, “Health care is not easy — you don’t want to go in blindly. It’s taxing.” O-Shaughnessy ultimately pursued the certification and worked as a CNA during both high school and college.

McNamer, who says being a nurse “was always in me,” had long wanted to advance her education to become a registered nurse, hoping to do overseas health care volunteer missions once her children were grown up. Mother and daughter enrolled at Winona State to pursue RN degrees together, with O’Shaughnessy, who opted to live at home, studying upstairs and her mother downstairs.

Many of the professors knew both mom and daughter, and at Gundersen too colleagues were familiar with the duo as McNamer continued her work at the hospital while O’Shaughnessy did her nursing research internship onsite.

McNamer graduated with her RN degree in 2017, and when O’Shaughnessy earned hers in 2018, she donned her mother’s cap and gown. After a formal pinning during the ceremony, McNamer gave her daughter an honorary pinning for a full-circle moment.

McNamer switched over to the medical surgical unit at Gundersen for two years before returning to GI, and O’Shaughnessy accepted a job in the inpatient behavioral health department at Gundersen. Last year, she moved to outpatient behavioral health.

While McNamer focuses more on physical health in her position, O’Shaughnessy was drawn to working in mental health. People, even strangers, long seemed to find her easy to talk to and confide in, and O’Shaughnessy wanted to help those with often stigmatized conditions like addiction and mental illness. Her advocacy and support for those “underserved” extends beyond hospital walls, as she works to secure supports for patients, and both are passionate about participating in awareness events like the Mini Donut Half Marathon for suicide prevention and helping with the Freedom Honor Flight for veterans.

“I have seen a lot of her soft side, but she becomes a mama bear for her patients,” says McNamer, who notes her “chest swells up pretty big when I see her in the hall at work, or someone says ‘Oh, I saw your daughter today and she’s really such a great nurse.’”

The pride is mutual, with O’Shaughnessy saying, “I’ve always admired her passion. She is a perfectionist so she will go above and beyond for her patients. Working here it seems like everyone knows her. It makes me smile too. It makes me proud to have someone like her to look up to and emulate her behaviors (that positively) affect the patients and her coworkers.”

McNamer and O’Shaughnessy never seem to reach their limit on togetherness — they eat lunch and take walks side by side during their breaks at work, received their COVID vaccines simultaneously and are even neighbors in rural Minnesota. And both share households with like minds — O’Shaughnessy’s husband is a nurse, and McNamer’s son is finishing his third semester in the same nursing program at Winona State as his mom and sister.

When McNamer and her kids subconsciously slip into what she calls “nurse speak,” laden with medical terminology and abbreviations, her husband, a mail carrier, is the odd man out.

Quips McNamer, “One day my husband said, ‘I feel like whenever I’m listening to you all speaking, it’s like I’m listening to a foreign language.”

Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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