Each year, a national search is held to find the most exceptional nurses in the U.S. Nurses from across the country are nominated by colleagues. This year, Nurse.com continues its tradition of recognizing and celebrating the achievements of these dedicated nurses at regional awards galas held throughout the country, the culmination of which results in the naming of six special nurses as 2013 Nursing Excellence GEM awardees.
In each region, five remarkable nurses in six specialized categories were chosen as finalists from the hundreds of nominations received. A regional winner in each category was selected from this group. “Our program has a sparkly new look and a shiny new name,” said Cheryl Portner, RN, MSN, vice president of staff development and training and nurse executive. “The GEM Awards are our way of publicly recognizing excellence in nursing by awarding nurses who were nominated, selected and celebrated by other nurses, and who represent the best of the best in our profession. It is our privilege to honor them.”
Advancing and Leading the Profession
Pamela Willson, RN, PhD, FNP-BC, CNE, FAANP
Former Associate Director of Education
Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Houston
When Willson listened to Nurse.com nurse leaders at the Aug. 16 GEM Awards Gala in Houston list her accomplishments and merits before her name was announced as the winner in her category, she thought to herself: “Is this all me?”
“When you work as a nurse, there are so many things we do every day as our second nature, we don’t think of them as above and beyond moments, but instead, simply what we need to do to accomplish everything expected of us,” said Willson.
For 12 years, she worked at Michael E. DeBakey VA Center, including the last four years in the Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center, where she was the associate director of education until her recent retirement. “My connection to this facility and organization is so special because not only am I the daughter of a veteran and the wife of a veteran, but my father came here for care, as did my husband,” she said. “So anytime I see a veteran walking down a hallway, it’s my own father and husband that I see.”
Willson said the veterans organization established the Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center because no such specialized care unit previously existed to concentrate on the condition. Today, she uses her position to educate patients and healthcare providers about the disease. She also writes and contributes chapters for textbooks and speaks on the topic at national conferences.
She is the co-principal investigator for the Texas Consortium Geriatric Education Center Funding Award and also implemented novel interprofessional education initiatives, including clinics at a homeless shelter led by advanced practice registered nurses.
For 25 years, Willson taught APRNs, incorporating interprofessional telemedicine into her curriculum. Her clinical practice and research focuses on motor disorders, telehealth and self-management.
Her staff describes her as someone who exceeds expectations — a compassionate nurse and faculty resource who also is a nurse scientist — and say she is uniquely qualified to provide care for the veteran population. “I push for a focus on education and the latest study findings,” Willson said. “Today, if you are a provider in primary care, you might only see a patient for annual appointments. In our role, we need to reach patients with the latest information as often as we can to help those who need our care.”
Clinical Nursing, Inpatient
Sandra K. Sanchez, RN, BSN, CA-CP-SANE, SANE-A, SANE-P
Forensic Nurse Examiner
Memorial Hermann Health System, Houston
The victimization and brutality that Sanchez’s patients have endured are stories “that never leave the mind or soul,” and are the catalysts that fuel her ambition to work harder. “Forensic nursing is part of me and my experiences and patients are with me even when I’m not on duty,” she said.
Sanchez has worked at Memorial Hermann for 18 years and as a forensic nurse examiner for 10 years. “I’ve learned to understand that while we are in the field of taking care of others, there’s also self-care and being able to live with what we see and assist with every day.”
Sanchez cares for adults and children who have suffered violence such as sexual and physical assault and elder abuse. She also builds care plans for patients with needs such as safety planning and alternative housing and links patients to community resources.
Because her examination process for patients must include extensive details and documentation, often supported by diagrams, photographs and comprehensive assessment — all of which might be required with testimony if she is subpoenaed — a single patient session might last three to four hours.
Her calling to use her talents in this sensitive, demanding, highly specialized nursing concentration came from her earlier work in the ED. Today, she is valued not only by her facility, staff and patients, but also the law enforcement agencies and victim advocates and support groups she works closely with on each case.
Despite her hard work and success, Sanchez was stunned to receive an award at the Nurse.com regional awards gala. “As I heard the presenter list all of the accomplishments and contributions of my fellow nominees in the category, I was so surprised to have my name called as the winner,” she said.
She is a member of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and the International Association of Forensic Nurses. “I’m driven by my passion to provide the best care to my patients,” Sanchez said. “The patients I care for have suffered devastating and life-changing events. When their physical wounds are not serious, these patients are often overlooked and not given the attention they deserve. As a forensic nurse, I have the opportunity to promote emotional healing so that these life-changing events do not define the rest of their lives.”
Education and Mentorship
Linda H. Yoder, RN, PhD, MBA, FAAN, AOCN
Associate Professor, Director, Nursing Administration Graduate Concentration
University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing
Winning the award for a category dedicated to education and mentorship serves an additional purpose for Yoder, who hopes to clarify what she describes as a misused definition. “This is my area of research and I work very hard to make sure others understand what mentorship truly means,” said Yoder, who has been a nurse for 36 years. “Mentorship is a term that is so often used incorrectly. What so many people, including nurses, usually refer to as ‘mentoring’ is really coaching or setting an example for someone else.”
Yoder explains for a mentorship to exist, both parties must spend a great deal of time together and connect not only on a professional level, but also a social level. For example, she said the time she devotes to her doctoral students qualifies as a mentorship because of the “psycho-social component” and the time investment, which extend beyond classroom learning and sharing. “It’s an ongoing and intense relationship that results in learning from another,” she said.
She also collaborates with other healthcare systems on nursing research and evidence-based practice initiatives. Her colleagues credit her for contributing to the high-quality performance of doctoral students, as evidenced by graduation and publication rates and postgraduation employment.
In today’s push for more online courses and virtual classrooms, Yoder believes in the value of face-to-face learning, which she said allows students to also learn from discussion and one another. “I want our future nurses to be able to interact and think quick on their feet,” she said. “I like my classes to run like a seminar. A student may or may not agree with something I say, but that’s how the opportunity for discussion takes any class to the next level of learning.”
Yoder served in the Army Nurse Corps for 28 years and retired as a colonel. She also is a member of several professional nursing organizations, including the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, the Oncology Nursing Society, the Association of Nurse Executives and the American Nurses Association. “When I received this award, I looked very closely around the room and saw many high achievements all around me,” Yoder said. “So many people have the potential, if they can dedicate the time required, to be a mentor for the future and greater learning experience of others.”
Home, Community and Ambulatory Care
Victoria A. Yeatts, RN, MSN-HCSM
Deputy Director of Health
Garland (Texas) Health Department
While reading the names and credentials of the fellow nominees in her award category, Yeatts said she noticed she was the only public health nurse. “Whether at the federal, state or local level, a nurse in the public health field must always think outside of the box to be the safety net for so many others who depend on this department and the many functions and responsibilities,” said Yeatts, who has been a public health administrator for the City of Garland for 17 years and oversees the clinic, which serves more than 20,000 patients a year.
Her department is responsible for services such as back-to-school vaccines typical of this time of year, curtailing outbreaks of contagious diseases and assuring safety from illness related to food preparation.
Yeatts said outreach, awareness and public education are key to success. For several years, she has recorded a radio broadcast for Clear Channel radio stations throughout Texas to support and communicate the importance of immunizations, and she also is the clinical services chairwoman for the Public Health Advisory Committee for Dallas County.
In 2011, she was appointed to a four-year term on the Texas Department of State Health Services Public Funding and Policy Committee and said she seeks to share accurate information about the goals and requirements for committee members, such as the organization’s mission to define the public health services a local health department should provide, identify funding and initiatives for improvement and establish public health policies. “There’s so much wrong information on the Internet,” she said. “We educate about the importance of knowing the sources providing information and what the facts and evidence are to back up what’s being said.”
Yeatts is proud of her clinic’s increased immunization rate and says this increase has resulted in the improved health of the children in the school district. She also has successfully enabled the clinic she leads to become a private insurance provider, allowing the city and school district to offer health insurance, while also focusing on creative new ways to reach families in need by offering low cost health services.
“We’ve known for a long time that nursing needs are not just about treating the sick and the symptoms,” she said. “Preventive care is a top priority.”
Patient and Staff Management
Ulondia Denise Lee, RN, MSN, CENP
Former Director of Surgical Acute Care
Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, Mansfield, Texas
During her seven years at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, including nearly six years as director of surgical acute care, Lee said developing an effective balance for both staff and patient needs was an important factor for success. In August, just after winning her award, Lee decided to begin a new career chapter in her nursing field and meet new challenges. “I began as a nurse in 1995 and there’s always so much new and ever-changing for our field,” she said. “My position helped me prepare for what’s next. I felt a little overwhelmed winning this award. I know how special it is just to be nominated.”
Some of the reasons her colleagues nominated Lee for the award include improved patient safety and leading the clinical staff to reach and surpass goals related to quality, patient satisfaction and regulatory compliance, all while supervising more than 50 nurses and clinical staff on the facility’s busy surgical acute floor at the 168-bed hospital. Lee also is known for allowing staff to make critical decisions and for her reputation of leading by example. “Trust is always important for both patients and staff,” said Lee, who considers her advanced degrees not only an educational asset, but also as an emphasis for the importance of staff to continue to learn while at work and seek further higher education. “Staff works best as a team when trust is a priority for working to accomplish a common mission and set goals,” she said.
She is a member of the American Nurses Association and Texas Nurses Association, working with legislators on workplace advocacy initiatives. In addition to serving as an adjunct faculty member for Texas Woman’s University, teaching core courses to nursing students, her outside volunteer time includes serving on the board for the Cancer Research Foundation of North Texas.
Lee’s nominators said her leadership was instrumental in improving patient satisfaction scores and said she had a proven ability to direct the clinical staff to reach and surpass goals related to quality, including patient positive feedback and fiscal management. One of her current projects is to write a book of inspiring nursing stories to share with patients, offering tales of hope, healing and comfort during a hospital stay or treatment. “For a nurse and patient to interact, there always has to be a relationship and a connection while working together,” Lee said. “Our care is built on our concern to always work harder to be better at what we do.”
Volunteerism and Service
Jan Auerbach, RN, MSN, LP
Baylor Medical Center at Uptown, Dallas
Auerbach is quick to admit she doesn’t always attend annual award ceremonies. In her own words, she had “ulterior motives” to attend this year’s event, in addition to her nomination. “I have had this idea of funding other nurses to go on medical mission trips for several years now, but life got in the way and it was pushed to the bottom of my priority list,” she said, explaining the gala was an opportunity to network and talk to others about her campaign to increase volunteer nurse opportunities by helping arrange funding for trips.
“The best part of receiving this award is that it reignited my focus to make my Mission Possible for Nurses idea come to fruition,” she said. “I have been very fortunate in my career to be a part of many different ventures, including teaching, publishing and research, and I feel that adrenaline rush when working in a level 1 trauma center ER. However, I can truthfully say that nothing compares to the reward and sense of accomplishment that comes from volunteering. It is the most gratifying work that I have ever done as a nurse, and I hope to continue as long as I am breathing.”
Auerbach said while the need for more volunteering nurses for mission trips has increased in recent decades, the numbers of those able “to answer the call” does not meet today’s demands. She has been making plans to have her 12-year-old granddaughter accompany her on a future mission trip abroad.
“I have to admit that I get much more than I ever give when caring for patients that, without humanitarian aid, would have no access to even the most basic healthcare,” Auerbach said. “Seeing the beaming smiles on parents’ faces when their child’s cleft lip has been repaired, or tears streaming down the faces of the elderly after a simple 30-minute cataract surgery has given them sight again after decades of blindness, is immeasurable.”
She said today, most mission trips require between $1,200 to $3,000 for travel expenses for a nurse to devote time and talent on a trip that can improve and save lives, but also provide renewed hope. “I not only participate in humanitarian work for the great joy that I receive, but because it is my responsibility for being so blessed to live in the richest country in the world, when so many struggle to simply survive,'” Auerbach said, adding she hopes her award and the media coverage serve as a springboard to generate her envisioned program to fund nurse missions.
“One of my favorite quotes perhaps says it all: ‘To those much has been given, much is expected.'”