Pandemic prompts Duluth caregiver to shift careers

Essential worker Katja Carlson talks about her guilty pleasure, her gifts and Betty White.

Katja Carlson
Katja Carlson counts pills for residents at Ecumen Lakeshore on April 3. Carlson has worked in health care for 20 years.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Katja Carlson decided to change jobs, but after 20 years in health care, she stayed close to home. She pivoted from a nursing home gig to working for Ecumen Lakeshore, Duluth’s short-stay and medical rehabilitation center.

The “heartbreaking” cycle of getting attached to hospice clients who are unable to receive the care they’re used to, compounded by the realities of COVID, staffing shortages and mandated overtime, led to some stark health consequences for the Duluth resident.

“When you're working for 14-16 hours, you go home exhausted and the next day power your way through. I needed to go on antidepressants to help balance my moods, as well as blood pressure medication. I was so stressed out,” Carlson recalled.

Now as a trained medical assistant at Ecumen, she enjoys her shift from end-of-life care. “It’s nice to see people go home instead of leaving with the funeral home, seeing them get better, get healed up, get stronger and walk out that door," she said.

Carlson chatted about her guilty pleasure, her gifts and Betty White.


My work involves: Taking care of patients recovering from surgery, injury and other things of that nature. I am responsible for distributing their daily medications.

Family: My family is the most important thing in my life. They are my support system.

What led working in health care: I grew up around health care. When I was little, I wanted to be a candy striper and volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes.

Biggest problem in health care today: Staffing has been especially hard since the start of COVID. Not only hiring new staff, but retaining current staff. A large part of it is staff burnout: working long hours, short-staffed, keeping up with the needs of patients as well as their family.

Manufacturer supply shortages, things being on back order for sometimes weeks at a time. It makes it difficult to do our jobs when we don't have the right tools to do so.

Best support in health care: Fellow co-workers because they are dealing with the same stress of the job. They can relate to what you're going through. Second to that would be family. Always there to listen to me vent or cry or just unload the stresses of my day.

My special gifts: I am very caring and compassionate. I care for all my patients and want the very best for them. I am strong-willed and not afraid to say something or advocate for someone.

If I weren't doing my current job: I'm not quite sure what I'd be doing. Health care is a huge part of my life, so I imagine I would find myself working in some aspect of the health care system.


A positive interaction at work: Being able to form a bond with patients that have never been in rehab or nursing home, and helping them make a smooth transition.

My self-care: Doing what I enjoy on days off — gardening, playing with my cats, cooking, watching crime shows.

How I work through tough times: A phrase I learned from my grandparents: "This too shall pass." It reminds me that the tough times aren't permanent and that things will get better somewhere down the line.

Best advice: Stay true to yourself.

People always ask: How do you do it? (The job in health care)

My guilty pleasure: Dark chocolate.

I'm watching: "Chicago P.D."; "Chicago Fire"; "Chicago Med."

If I could have dinner with three people: Betty White, Eminem, Johnny Depp.


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Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346,
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