Debbie from California:  DaVita's Dietitian Leader

Every renal dietitian at DaVita touches the lives of others, but maybe no one has a greater impact than Debbie Benner, MA, RD, CSR. As DaVita’s Vice President of Clinical Support, Debbie is personally charged with overseeing the Nutrition and Social Work Clinical Support programs in 1,500 DaVita Dialysis centers located in 43 states.

Debbie’s professional journey started more than 30 years ago when she was a student at her local community college. “Growing up, I was keenly interested in science, nutrition and health,” Debbie remembers. “I was fortunate to have a teacher at my community college reach out to me and introduce the idea of becoming a dietitian. I did not know the profession existed prior to that time, so I owe her an enormous thank you for taking the time to touch my life and professional career choice. I am forever thankful to her.”

Debbie was born and raised in Southern California and graduated with a degree in Dietetics and Food Administration from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. She then went on to intern at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. Later, she returned to California and obtained a Master’s Degree from California State University Long Beach.

Her interest in the renal field began when Debbie undertook a renal rotation as part of her internship at Good Samaritan Hospital. “I became aware there was a specialty related to kidney disease, and I was impressed by the diet and nutrition challenges that dialysis patients live with,” Debbie recalls. “When I graduated from my internship, there was an opportunity in a hospital and outpatient dialysis center so I started working in dialysis. That was over 30 years ago.”

As DaVita’s Vice President of Clinical Support, Debbie is charged with the challenging tasks of representing and supporting more than 1,200 dietitians and 1,100 social workers across the DaVita Village and promoting the highest quality nutritional care for over 117,000 patients.

When asked about the rewards of such a demanding job, Debbie says that she takes pride in the robust educational resources the DaVita dietitian team has created for patients. “These resources, coupled with ongoing professional education, enable our dietitians to provide the highest quality care possible,” states Debbie. “Every single one of our patients has a personal relationship with their dietitian.” And it is these personal relationships that are critical for quality patient care. “Our dietitians use their education and resources to empower patients to make positive choices for their health,” says Debbie. “I take great pride in the fact that DaVita dietitians are connected as a team – they continuously and passionately support each other and the nutritional care of our patients.”

In her position as Vice President of Clinical Support, Debbie works directly with DaVita’s Dietitian Leadership team. “The lead dietitians promote high-quality nutritional care of our patient’s caregivers and teammates,” explains Debbie.

Even though she is no longer involved with direct patient care, Debbie’s focus is always on ways to improve the lives of DaVita patients. “Although I do not work directly with our patients, I feel connected through the stories and experiences our dietitians share with me,” Debbie says. “When I support and participate in quality-improvement efforts, I know my work will touch our patients and make a difference in their lives.”

When asked how she guides the DaVita dietitians in their approach to patients, Debbie explains that she promotes a holistic view. “I encourage them to get to know our patients as individuals. By better understanding their living situation, culture, likes and dislikes, our dietitians are better able to design a personalized diet that fits the individual patient. In this way, they can enable patients to be successful in managing their health.”

For the patients themselves, Debbie recommends they set achievable, positive goals with reasonable and specific steps in the process. “Patients must assess their own health status, learn how to make it better and then apply the principles as best they can each and every day,” Debbie suggests. “That may mean limiting the frequency or quantity of food, taking medication more consistently or increasing activity.”

Sometimes little things can go a long way in helping to make big changes. “I have found the most helpful thing to improve one’s health is to make better choices a habit, such as using a pillbox holder with days of the week labeled to ensure that medications are taken,” Debbie explains. “I recommend purchasing healthy foods so they are readily available when a choice needs to be made. Find ways to make improved health habits an easy choice each and every day.”

Debbie has been part of the company that is now DaVita since 1998. She was promoted to Director of Nutrition Services in 2000 and then to Vice President of Clinical Support in 2009. Her enthusiasm for DaVita is obvious. “I enjoy working for DaVita, because it is a special company that promotes teamwork and a sense of community,” Debbie says. “I appreciate the way that DaVita is always striving to improve the care we provide and that DaVita supports innovative ideas to improve.”

Along with helping patients to live healthier lives, sometimes the DaVita renal dietitian team makes changes in their own lives as well. Debbie recounts one such experience: “In 2009, I participated in Tour DaVita. I am not an athletic person, yet I was able to ride 250 miles in the tour. I practiced from May until September and was amazed at my progress during that time. It was a personal challenge and I am so thankful to have been exposed to this wonderful activity. I plan to continue riding as part of my personal health regime. I was so touched by all those who took part in the ride and pushed themselves to achieve their personal best.”

As part of the DaVita team, Debbie has experienced some pleasant surprises. “The most surprising thing I have learned is that DaVita allows and encourages people to reach their fullest professional potential,” explains Debbie. “I was awarded the 2009 Recognized Renal Dietitian of the year award by the National Kidney Foundation. This occurred as a result of the support I received while working at DaVita.”

Along with being recognized as Renal Dietitian of the year in 2009, Debbie has also been honored with the Shining Star Team Award for the Nutrition Services Team/DaVita National Award 2008, Chairman’s Award/ DaVita National Award 2004 and Core Value Award for Outstanding Team/DaVita National Award 2002.

Asked about Debbie, her colleagues had plenty of good things to say!

“(Debbie is) a true friend and colleague who has incredible ability to envision what can be and strives to make sure the best results are obtained. She not only leads with wisdom, she mentors and nourishes her team while sharing her humor and laughter.”

Sara Carlson, RD, CDE

“Debbie is an incredibly intelligent person, yet she always reaches out to others for their opinions and input. She isn't afraid to make hard decisions but does so after she has gathered the information to ensure that she has looked at the whole picture. I think Debbie inspires others because she lives what she believes and continually strives to improve while encouraging those around her to do so also.”

Marcia Davis, RD, LD

“Debbie is the ultimate professional: an advocate for her profession and a leader who inspires others. Because of her example, her team is truly a team, all working for the common good. She listens carefully to all and is able to recognize the unique contributions that each member of her team can offer.”

Mary Heistand, MA, RD

“With family and friends forming the foundation and guidelines of her life, Debbie brings to her leadership role as VP actions and decisions based upon what is kind, what is fair, how decisions impact others and how to be present for others. It is no wonder that the dietitian team is able to achieve so much, when the leadership that we try to emulate mirrors the best possible in words, actions, goals and achievement.”

Karen Graham, RD, LDN

“Debbie Benner is a woman to be admired. She is focused and driven and has never lost sight of her role as a registered dietitian. She contributes professionally through her participation in national committees and clinical research projects while maintaining healthy self-care habits. Debbie is a role model for many dietitians by demonstrating appropriate work/life balance.”

Maria Stasios, RD, LDN

“Debbie has the wisdom and vision that makes our team stronger. For me, she is a good friend and a great colleague. She represents all of our core values. I can call her any time and trust that she will point me in the right direction.”

Chhaya Patel, MA, RD, CSR“We are so lucky to have such an inspirational leader that continues to grow as a leader. She has taken on more responsibilities while assuring that the Dietitian team still thrives. She is so well respected by others within and outside of DaVita.  She is able to see the big picture and know what is needed for our team. All the while she is a truly caring person. The Shining Star Team Award for Nutrition Services in 2008 would not have been possible with out her leadership to guide us.”

Kathy Lahr, RD

“Debbie is a model of a great leader. She exhibits dedication, openness and an ability to uplift others. This, along with her great sense of humor, creates a wonderful environment for her team and promotes them to be creative and motivated. Truly a great leader!”

Rebecca (Becky) Brosch, RD, LD

It’s obvious that DaVita team members admire and respect Debbie Benner for all that she brings to her work at DaVita.

Debbie has created a kidney-friendly recipe called Cool Cucumber Soup that’s simple enough to whip together in no time. Its creamy blend of cucumber, sour cream and half and half, flavored with touches of onion, lemon juice, mint and dill, make it a hit with even the most sophisticated palates. The next time you want a simple soup that’s far from ordinary, try Debbie’s recipe for Cool Cucumber Soup. Like just about everything that Debbie puts her hand to, it’s sure to get a round of applause!

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