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'You get what you pay for' (part 2): A 'Shining Star' in Plum City

Ruth Hartung, who has been working at Plum City Care Center for 41 years, looks out toward where the residents are eating at the facility. (photo by Jalen Knuteson)

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part story on funding shortages for long-term care facilities. Jump to Part 1 and Part 3.

When the director comes to Plum City Care Center for a routine visit, Ruth Hartung, a cook there for 41 years, makes the trip uniquely special.

The director eats the same food that residents eat. Hartung uses the same ingredients found in various assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, but somehow, Hartung is able to make each meal especially good.

“It must be because she cooks with love,” Director of Nursing Dawn Davis said. “That’s the only thing we can think of, because I don’t know how two different cooks can come up with two different products using the same ingredients.”

On Oct. 20, Hartung “was honored with the Shining Star Support Staff Award at the 65th Annual Fall Convention of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and the Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living,” according to a press release dated Oct. 28.

Eventually, the time will come for Hartung to retire. Davis said she will be disappointed when that time comes.

“You wish you could clone her,” Davis said. “Her work ethic is hard to find. She comes in and is happy with what she does every day.”

From 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. each day, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays when she leaves at 1:30 p.m. to drive her brother to an appointment in Eau Claire, she is the most consistent and reliable caregiver in the facility.

What drives her to continue to provide the services that she does?

“I think it is great when residents get to go back home,” Hartung said.

With her modesty, it’s hard to tell if she is aware that consistent, quality meals make a major difference in the health of people. Her work has helped people maintain an improved quality of life in uncertain, often vulnerable times in the residents' lives.

Hartung said she’s just happy to help.

“(Plum City) is comfy. It really is like a home, except they don’t have to worry about what to eat,” Hartung said. “The food comes right to them and it’s all warm and prepared.”

At a time when administrator Carla Hutter has said she worries each night before she goes to bed whether her full staff is going to be at work in the morning, it is a comfort that for at least the immediate future, Hartung is comfortable with what she’s doing at Plum City.

'Such a great place'

Hartung remains loyal to the facility and the community, though she can’t begin to remember every caregiver that has come through Plum City.

“It’s such a great place. I think it’s worth staying to help take care of the people,” Hartung said. “I sure am glad I worked here. It’s a wonderful place.”

Until the time comes for Hartung to retire, Davis hopes she can inspire nurses to work as hard as she does and care about the residents as much as she does.

There is one thing, though, Davis knows will remain impossible.

“She could never, ever be replaced,” Davis said.

CONCLUSION: Wages lead to staff shortages...