End-of-life care comes naturally to Hospice of San Joaquin leader

Rebecca Burnett, CEO of Hospice of San Joaquin, brings years of caring and empathy to her position.

Rebecca Burnett was a certified nursing assistant by the time she was 16. When she was little, a nurse held her hand through a family difficulty. There was an emotional connection that let her know everything would be OK.

That was the moment, Burnett said, that she knew she wanted to be a nurse.

Burnett has had a career – including time in the U.S. Army which helped pay for her education – that has led her to be CEO of Hospice of San Joaquin, even if it’s not a goal she had in mind.

CVBJ: What was your upbringing like?
RB: My father was an auto mechanic. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. To be honest, we were kids who got home and played outside until it got dark out because that was in the ’70s, early ’80s. My mom would just scream for us, we’d all come running in. We rode our bikes up and down the street, knew all our neighbors, so from that aspect I would say we had the classic childhood that a lot of parents wish they had for their kids today.

CVBJ: How has your career prepared you for your role as CEO of a hospice organization?
RB: I’m a nurse by trade. When I was five, my mother gave birth to my youngest sister. (My mother) almost died in the process. The children, the four of us, they had us go up … to say goodbye to my mother. I was scared and shaking. She was on the ventilator. It was overwhelming.

The nurse saw me shaking, and she grabbed my hand. She knelt down, and she said, “it’s all going to be OK.” The feeling that I got from her is that she cared, and that she wanted it to be OK, even if it wasn’t going to be OK. It was an emotional connection that I’d never had with an outside person before. I knew from the moment that nurse grabbed my hand that I wanted to be that to somebody else; that person that cares and makes it OK.

I graduated from school and worked at UC Davis for several years as a neurosurgical intensive care nurse. Working there, I took care of a lot of organ donors. I then started to do organ transplants. I then started to work for Golden State Donor Services.

We moved our careers because (my husband, a pilot) moved his career to Texas. I started to work at a hospital. (After a traumatic experience with a patient and family), I decided to take some time off work. That whole thing that just happened wasn’t why I became a nurse. I found hospice three months later. They were opening a hospice house in Austin, Texas. When I found out hospice was a choice, taking power of your life and choosing what you want, as a nurse, I could be that warmth for them, that guidance. Even though you’re going through the worst thing in your life, you’re not alone. That’s what I had been looking for since I was five, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

The reality is I feel it makes me a better CEO to have been everything from a nursing assistant to a family member and nurse.

CVBJ: What does your position require of you?
RB: On a daily basis, it requires mostly empathy. I must have empathy for my employees and empathy for my patients, and really try to balance those two to create the best possible outcome for our patients. It requires knowledge of the rules and regulations that come with managing healthcare. It requires constant reading and updating of policy, procedures and how we do things based on the regulations, which can change from year to year. It requires me to be very flexible. It requires a bit of time because there’s not just the business aspect of Monday through Friday, there’s also a lot of fundraising that’s involved.

CVBJ: What qualities do you look for in your staff?
RB: Compassion and care. I also look to see if they have experience – not work experience, personal experience. Hospice is something that people can either do or not do. If they come with having some previous experience of having a loved one pass in hospice, they understand at a core level what it is what we do and what they’re getting themselves into. Dealing with death and dying all day long is not a simple task. Hospitals? Good positive things happen. Patients die, but most of them go home. Here? They’re home, but they’re not recovering. You have to see beyond the death of the individual and what wonderful experiences you’re going to allow them to have between today and their last breath.

CVBJ: How do lead your team?
RB: I set incredibly clear expectations. I hold them accountable. I allow for two-way communication, meaning, “This is what I need you to do. How can I help you? What do you need from me to ge t it back?” They are only as successful as I allow them to be. I can’t ask them to do something that they don’t have the tools to do. I have never – and will never ask them to do something I won’t do myself. They understand why I hold them to high expectations, because what we do matters.

CVBJ: What would you improve about yourself?
RB: All people are a work in progress. I can continue to learn. I can continue to learn to be a better leader. I can continue to be a better parent. I can always be a better spouse and sister. That’s one of the nice things about getting older: you realize that you’re the best you are today based on today’s experience, but then, hopefully, tomorrow you’re also a better person. I’m always seeking that out.

CVBJ: Who has been the greatest influence on your personal and professional life?
RB: My personal life it was my grandmother. She was just a hard-working, tenacious woman. She took care of her neighbors. She was friendly, kind and a great interpersonal role model.
She taught me never to judge. Let’s say somebody said to you, “Look at that person. I can’t believe they’re wearing that.” My grandmother would say, “Why do you think they’re wearing that?” She was so philosophical about it. She would say, “Maybe they’re poor and that’s the only sweater they own.” So she was always very engaging and forcing you think about all the other options and never to judge. It was the best thing I ever learned.

In my professional life, her name was Cindy Cooper. She was my boss at Sutter North Hospice. She was going through a very personal time. Her ability to keep things professional while being at work, and being able to continue with the mission and professionalism and integrity, then at the same time being a wife and mother was profound. What she taught me was, as a woman working that also has many other roles in life, there isn’t a work-life balance. That is fictitious. You just have to decide at that moment which one item tips the scale and be in that moment at that time. The other times, do as you need to do. That has more impact on my professional life more than anything else.

CVBJ: What’s the biggest joy in your life?
RB: My biggest joy is being a parent. To see the world through eyes that are innocent and fresh is my greatest joy. It doesn’t have to be my own child, it can be any child.


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