Lab goes west

Published in For the Health of It Author: CentraCare

Each summer, Kim Hintermeister, Clinical Lab Scientist with CentraCare Laboratory Services, leads a team of eight CentraCare Health employees on a long weekend of adventure hiking in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since 2014, 27 different Centracare employees have signed on for this team-building adventure.

Editor’s NoteThe laboratory services team are some of the unsung and unseen heroes in any hospital. The laboratories at St. Cloud Hospital and CentraCare Plaza employ over 125 employees and together they perform more than 2 million tests per year. Many of these tests are vital in providing the physicians, nurses and other members of the health care team with the needed information to make informed decisions regarding someone’s care. 

At the end of each summer, Kim Hintermeister, Clinical Lab Scientist with CentraCare Laboratory Services, leads a team of eight CentraCare Health employees on a long weekend of adventure hiking in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since 2014, 27 different CentraCare employees have signed on for this team-building adventure.

As summer vacation season is gearing up, we recently spoke with Kim about the annual trip, its origin and what he aims to accomplish for this year’s trip.

Q: What initially gave you this idea to take an annual trip of adventure hiking with co-workers?

Kim: In 2013, I spent a week with my wife in the Black Hills and we absolutely loved it — and hiking is what we like to do. I got absolutely hooked on the allure of the West and all of the options this area provided. But when we travel, my wife is usually once and done, ever preferring to move on to new destinations.

For a month, I dreamed about how to get back to the Hills again and suggested to my friend who works in the lab that he and I run out there sometime for some trout fishing. He was in… but then overnight a new idea came over me and I shared it with him the next day. “Let’s you and I go out with a group of four technical staff and four phlebotomists with the purpose of team engagement.” I believe the concept of appreciation for our support staff is key to any successful team concept, so that’s how it started.

This upcoming trip will be number five, and though it took a couple of years to design the perfect route, the excitement of traveling with a new group never wanes.

Q: I understand that your team members have expanded beyond the laboratory in recent years. How did that happen?

Kim: The third year it changed. The difficulty of getting eight people to go isn’t due to a lack of interested parties. But, I have to be very sensitive to not take too many people from a particular shift or department. One day at work I took a call from an RN from Inpatient Dialysis about a transfusion need and when I hung up the phone a light went on in my head. Later that day we spoke again and I mentioned our Black Hills trip. Within a week, she and another RN in her department were signed on. The next year I took two more from Inpatient Dialysis and an Epic Application Analyst.

Although I have taken two people older than me by a couple of years, at 62 now, I believe I will retain the spot as the reigning oldest. We typically have about 35 years difference from the oldest to the youngest and that just adds to the concept of appreciating our differences. It’s remarkable to see people come back and respond with a new workplace relationship that changed positively after 86 hours together.

Q: What kind of response do you get from others when you say you are going on vacation with your co-workers?

Kim: There’s no doubt that this is a novel idea when it hits most minds. You can talk to a lot of people till you’re blue in the face and they don’t understand engagement. Sometimes you just have to model it, then model it again, then model it again before they get it. I have found myself saying time and time again… you don’t have to hike to do what I do, just do something you like to do, but do it with co-workers! When I first did this and my retired engineering brother from California read the post-trip narrative he said, “Businesses pay thousands of dollars to get their employees to do something like that!”  Some people get it. For me, loving people is natural, it’s my constitution.

Q: How long are your trips? What do you do to prepare for them?

Kim: We try to schedule the weekend after Labor Day so the place is pretty well cleared out. We leave in two cars Friday at 7 a.m. and return Monday at 7 p.m. Physically, I just tell them earlier in the summer what to expect. In the 30 days before we leave, I tell them I’ll do 30,000 vertical feet on the treadmill in the month and that they should do whatever they need to do to prepare… (Oh, and I suggest that the mountain lions always take down the ones in the rear of the pack, so they should try to keep up with the old man!)  

Sometime before we embark on the trip we meet at someone’s house for dinner to help “break the ice” since not everyone knows everyone. I ask for homework before and after the trip. I like to have people put into words their aspirations and fears so I know who I’m traveling with. Everyone has to give me a popular song from the year they graduated from high school so I can put together an inter-generational CD playlist for the cars. Again, it plays to appreciating one another.

Q: Once you get to the Black Hills, how much hiking do you end up doing?

Kim: On Saturday, we do Harney Peak which is a 7-mile roundtrip climbing 1,200 vertical feet. We make five stops on Spearfish Canyon throughout Saturday afternoon. Sunday we run out to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming for about 4 miles of hiking and finish at Bear Butte near Sturgis which is another 1,000 vertical feet in a roundtrip just under 4 miles. We average about 25 miles and 4,000 vertical feet in the 2 weekend days. It’s all very doable stuff, but packed into a weekend it can take the starch out of you. We sleep very well.  

Q: When you consider that climbing the stairs of the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet, that’s some impressive elevation change. Do you have people on your trip who struggle with those heights?

Kim: The vertical climbs can tire you out. On our trip, we sleep the first night at 6,000 feet and climb in the morning to 7,200. We keep an eye out for one another and try to stay hydrated.

Every year I have one or two people who have a genuine fear of heights. When you get them several hundred feet above the ground and they are hiking near ledges and drop-offs… they have concerns. But these are precisely the people who write the stark testimonies of how they would never have made it up to the top without the encouragement of a fellow trekker.

The grueling apex of Harney ends with some long runs of unnaturally high rock steps. I suggest to the group that they find some vantage point on the hike to be able to extend a hand to help somebody else up these difficult passages.  

So much of the trip becomes about doing more than you thought you’d be able to do, overcoming fears and boundaries and being part of someone else’s success.

Q: What’s your plan for this year’s trip?

Kim: My team of eight is secure, they all have their golden tickets. Three of us are from the hospital lab, three are from the plaza lab, one is an RN/case manager from the hospital… and I’m finally taking my brother who is a clinical lab scientist from New York who can’t stand to see it happen again without him.

And my heart’s desire is to find similar sentiment come through in some of the post-trip homework like I found one of the first years… 

“When I walk into the Lab since our return, I look at my new best friends in a warm and touching way that would not have existed prior to our Westward Ho trip. They are not just people that I work with, they are etched in my heart.”