WASHINGTON — During his time as a chief nursing officer, and then later as an Army medical facility commander, retired Brig. Gen. Bill Bester would go around the hospital twice a day and engage with his staff, the patients and their families.
He wanted to gain their trust and develop relationships with them because he knew that was a key to providing the best health care possible.
“You have to truly care about them as individuals,” he said. “If they know you are really trying to help them, they will be open to providing feedback you with valuable feedback.”
Gaining their trust allowed him to have open conversations about what was going well and what needed to change at the hospital.
“It’s amazing the kind of feedback you can get from people that make your job easier because then you can focus on the right things,” he explained.
Having the ability to develop quality long-lasting relationships in a team-first environment is what set the Army Nurse Corps apart from civilian facilities and what drove the Duluth, Minnesota native toward 32 years of service.
Early on in his career, the support he received from both military and civilian nurses allowed him to develop his clinical skills. He worked in several different departments during those days, which gave him the knowledge he would need going forward.
He also worked on developing relationships with patients and families right from the start.
One evening as a junior nurse working in the intensive care unit, a young boy was brought in with a head injury from a car accident. The injury he sustained was life-threatening, and he stayed in the unit for a long time. During that time, Bester worked closely with his family as they visited most evenings.
One night as he was getting ready to end his shift, the family asked if he would stick around and talk for a while. He agreed.
"I vividly remember that experience of just taking the time to talk to them as people, who are grieving through a terrible process,” he said. “I carry those thoughts to this day."
After initially planning to complete his three-year service obligation and return home, Bester had a change of heart. The positive experience he had during his first assignment at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington sealed the deal.
“I really liked what the Army had to offer,” he said. “I enjoyed the people that I got to work with and that I met. Each assignment I liked a little bit better and all of a sudden, you’re 15-16 years in and decide to make it a career.”
He also enjoyed the team atmosphere. There were no members of the staff that were elevated over the others. Each health care professional brought unique experiences and expertise to the table. This allowed them to provide high- quality patient care, he explained.
As he progressed, the Army provided challenges and opportunities.
He was able to attend numerous military courses as well as civilian programs. He completed anesthesia school and received his master’s degree in medical-surgical nursing. He worked at intensive care units, in-patient care units, taught future nurses, was a health care administrator, chief nurse and hospital commander.
“I was afforded professional opportunities that I would have never had anywhere else,” he said.
The mentorship and role models he had along the way helped him as he advanced. With each new promotion came a new role and a new responsibility.
Then in 2000, he took on the biggest responsibility of his career after being named the first male chief of the Army Nurse Corps. He guided more than 3,400 active-duty nurses along with hundreds of civilian nurses and enlisted Soldiers in the aftermath of 9/11.
In the days and weeks following the attack, they prepared units to deploy for war and then made sure the medical facilities were ready to care for those who returned home injured. The nursing staff not only had to help service members with their physical injuries, but the mental health issues they were experiencing.
Juggling manning and getting the nurse corps what they needed to provide quality care during this time proved to be a challenging yet rewarding assignment.
"I've had no greater honor in my lifetime than leading the Army Nurse Corps as its chief," he said. “It was a real privilege I knew I wouldn’t be able to match again.”
Following his retirement, Bester has been able to maintain many of the strong relationships he formed over his more than three decades of service.
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and for some of these people,” he said. “Their impact was so positive I wanted to carry on that relationship as friends after we retired.”
During the month of May, Americans celebrate the invaluable contributions nurses make on the health care system. This recognition is something that Bester feels is well deserved.
“Nurses play an extremely critical role [in health care] because they are the ones at the bedside 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “I think taking time out every year to focus on their many accomplishments is absolutely essential.”