Michael Polacek, APNA Award for Excellence in Practice - RNMichael Polacek, MSN, BSed, RN
2014 Award for Excellence in Practice - RN


When you speak with Michael Polacek, our recipient of the APNA Award for Excellence in Practice–RN, his passion for the relationship between environment and safety is evident. He says he has been reading from Rosemarie Parse’s Theory on Human Becoming – “We all are continually co-creating reality with our environment,” he says.  “And it is the matrix of education, the shifting pattern between being teacher and being learner that provides the environment for the nursing metaparadigm.”

One of his latest projects is right in line with that passion. “Salem Health Foundation approached me to review the physical design of the seclusion rooms in our emergency department,” he says. They wanted his expertise and recommendations to completely redo these rooms.  Collaborating with ED techs, nurses, mental health evaluators, security staff, physicians and the inpatient psychiatric staff, a plan for this remodel was developed and is in the works.

The rooms in their current state, he laments, “resemble jails cells - the doors are painted gunmetal grey and look like they’re from a battleship brig.” As Polacek describes his recommendations you can hear how thoroughly he has thought about the patient experience and the role of environment: “We’re going to change the color of door frames and window frames to a pastel in order to change the appearance of the room as you’re approaching the door,” he explains. “We’ve also identified some panels for the ceiling lights that are like photographs. When you look at up at them it’s like you’re lying on the ground staring at the sky through trees looking at the stars.” He thinks about how scary the experience of seclusion can be for a patient: “When you’re lying in your bed wondering what’s going to happen next in a situation you have no control over, you can at least be looking at the sky.”

In his current position as Professional Development Specialist for Salem Health in Oregon, Polacek is not working specifically in psychiatry. His purview covers the emergency department, community hospital, and psychiatric unit. “My responsibilities have to do with ensuring that staff education is meaningful and up-to-date,” he explains modestly, and then he is back to discussing patient care: “We’re also looking at some other ways in the ED we can work with kids – there’s a severe lack of acute beds for children. So we’re exploring other ways to approach that gap," he says. "I feel like we can make some really great improvements in how we treat psych issues in our community. Being a Magnet Designated hospital proves that our leadership is fully dedicated to the full range of human wellness within and beyond our campus grounds.”

This passion and focus on team efforts to improve patient care are Polacek to the core, as nominators Kathleen Delaney and Diane Allen point out. As co-chairs of the APNA Institute for Safe Environments - Polacek is an active member on the Steering Committee - they have had ample opportunity to work closely with him. “He was reluctant to be nominated for this award, telling me he is just part of the team, and the results that come from team effort,” says Delaney. “However, as his peers and accomplishments attest, he is a leader in psychiatric nursing inpatient care and a unit’s efforts to strive towards excellence.” Allen agrees. “He is quick to offer praise, compliments and encouragement to other people,” she says. “I have no doubt that Michael has the desire and ability to engage with patients and develop trusting relationships in order to help them work toward recovery. He expresses an ideology that is kind, proactive and therapeutic.”

Prior to his promotion to Professional Development Education Specialist, Polacek practiced at the Salem Psychiatric Medicine Center (PMC), which has between 49-51% involuntary admission (and where he was also the founding member of the hospital’s Assault Prevention Committee). One feature that PMC has has success in is the reduction of violence through improved engagement of staff and patients during the admission process. He sees this admission process as an important moment that can impact the entire patient experience. “Within five minutes we have to change their perception of their future,” he says. “We have to somehow turn their mind around to where they feel welcomed and but at the same time remove their clothes for a full body assessment.” How does one help a patient feel safe in such a situation? “It’s about demonstrating and maintaining a sense that we’re with them rather than controlling them,” he explains. “Everyone kind of has their own way of supporting a patient – maybe right off the bat offering some basic needs. At that point and time if they have some control we’re immediately creating some sort of alliance. This is a valuable moment of education in that we can then demonstrate that this experience will not be like past experiences that may have caused emotional trauma.”

The results speak for themselves: “Not only did we immediately reduce the risk for any level of people getting hurt but also created environment where the patient felt that we were together,” he explains, “We started to educate patients on how you can actually actively participate in your care and have control. Providing a protocol of how to guide and create your own care – that’s what I believe in.”