Salute to Nurses 2016: Top 10 nurses earn deserved recognition –

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Each May during Florence Nightingale‘s birthday week, the Houston Chronicle joins with local partners and sponsors to celebrate National Nurses Week and the role nurses play in delivering the highest level of care. National Nurses Week 2016 is May 6-12, with a special recognition of Nightingale’s birthday, May 12.

Since 2000, The Houston Chronicle has solicited nominations from the public for its Salute to Nurses awards. Nominations then are reviewed by a blue ribbon panel, and 10 outstanding nursing professionals are chosen to be honored as greater Houston’s Top 10 Nurses of the Year.

This year’s National Nurses Week theme, “Culture of Safety: It Begins With You,” recognizes the importance of a nurse’s commitment to using and modeling safe practices in every setting for every other member of the staff and team. How important is this annual celebration?

Mary Jo Andre, chief nursing officer at Texas Children’s Hospital, a Salute to Nurses sponsor, said it is important to recognize nurses because it heightens awareness of the special job they have.

“Nurses are often quick to say, ‘I am just doing my job,’ and to some degree that is correct. There are many skills they must have and many tasks they must perform to do their job. However, it is not the task of passing medications that makes their role special,” Andre said. “Their role is special because they are in the position of being present with (and for) our patients and their families when they are experiencing their most challenging times.”

Rhonda Bell, dean of allied health and natural science at San Jacinto College, this year’s Salute to Nurses Education Sponsor, said recognition of nurses is important to greater Houston’s medical community and the patients who depend on it.

“The visibility of the nursing profession provided by Salute to Nurses, along with its opportunities, offers the insights to attract prospective students, and as a community college, we offer accessibility to training, which is a huge value for the community,” Bell said.

Amanda Fenwick, vice president of San Jacinto College’s marketing and public relations, said it is proud to be this year’s Salute to Nurses Education Sponsor “… because we understand the critical role we play in training tomorrow’s workforce. With such a large sector of that workforce being in health care, we did not give a second thought to sponsoring this year’s Salute to Nurses.”

To the Houston Chronicle’s 2015 Top 10 Nurses, those selected for the Top 150 list and the thousands of their colleagues who work every day to help others, the Houston Chronicle salutes you!

Brandy Bowlen, RN, school nurse – Epps Island Elementary School, Klein ISD

The nominations received for Brandy Bowlen, RN and school nurse at Epps Island Elementary School in Klein ISD, sounded more like a cheering squad. Their superlatives spilled over like a movie popcorn popper during a busy Saturday matinee.

Bowlen, herself, apologized for multi-tasking during our interview. Multi-tasking is understandable, with the faculty, staff and 720 students the registered nurse’s days are busy, and that doesn’t count time spent after the students go home for the day, or the evenings when Bowlen goes to the middle school Epps Island students feed into for a choral or theater presentation or athletic event.

“The kids are surprised but happy to see us,” said Bowlen, who has been school nurse at Epps Island for six years and has now seen her first graduates go on to middle school.

Growing up in Houston, as a child, Bowlen lived in the Epps Island neighborhood where she now teaches. That was before her family moved to Magnolia, where she graduated from high school in 1995.

“My sister had a baby before I graduated,” Bowlen said. “To that point, I had no idea what my future looked like.

“My sister’s delivery was difficult. Her baby – my niece – was pretty traumatized when she arrived. Of course I watched everything, so I was glued to the big window that separated the rest of us from the newborn nursery and I saw that nurse comfort our baby, how gently she touched the bruises on her little face.

“That nurse touched me too that day – I made my decision, talked to my sister’s nurses about what it took to be a nurse, and with the support of my wonderful family, I attended Lone Star (College) – Tomball – where I earned my RN in 2004,” she said. “My first job was at Conroe Regional Medical Center, where I worked on a floor that included pediatric patients, which helped me narrow my goals of working with children.”

Among her mentors are her director – Laurie Combe – whom she looks to as a leader and is challenged to set her personal bar even higher.

“I also have had great nurse mentors in my life, from Conroe Regional to Memorial Hermann – The Woodlands,” she said, all of whom she calls “the absolutely amazing people I look up to.”

During her tenure at the school, Bowlen has written grants and received more than $50,000 to bring good health and healthy living programs to Epps Island students and their parents. She also has organized the school’s annual Health and Fitness Community Day the past five years.

As one nomination reads, “She can keep a smile on her face when things get crazy, will always go above and beyond what is expected, listen without judgment and advocate for those she serves.”

Bowlen calls the school’s staff and faculty “the amazing team” and credits PE department head Larissa Tucker; parent liaison Carol Guerrero; and Miss Ro, her clinical assistant and “her rock,” for keeping her “reined in and on task.”

There’s a closet of clean, gently used uniforms for children who need them, and a washer-dryer Bowlen said “runs much of the day.” There are community resources for students needing health, dental and eye care their families cannot afford, and a listener with a smile when a child has a problem.

“I’ve wanted this award since I was a ‘baby nurse,” Bowlen said. “I vowed one day I was going to be ‘that nurse.’ Of course I never expected to be in the Top 10.”

When asked her one wish for her students, Bowlen said, “I wish for them the same opportunities as every kid. I want them to have access to medical care, supportive family and to play on the exact same level playing field as every other child. I wish them to be successful – and that’s what we’re here for – to provide that opportunity. Our school is the center of the community. We have opportunity to see needs, and if we can see it, we can fix it,” Bowlen said.

That attitude is probably the reason one nominator wrote: “Brandy Bowlen is this school’s Super Woman.”

Rossana “Sunsi” Brual, RN (1974-2016) – Tomball Regional Medical Center SICU/CCU

In one brief moment three years ago, Rossana “Sunsi” Brual and her family saw their lives turn upside down. The nurse’s mild belly pain led to a battery of tests. The final diagnosis came in four words, words that could shake even the mightiest to their core: Stage 4 breast cancer. She passed away this year.

“She never let the cancer define her,” wrote Tomball Regional Medical Center’s assistant chief nursing officer Michelle Henderson in the posthumous nomination for Brual. “She didn’t want special treatment or to be treated differently because of her diagnosis.

“She was a consistent, loyal member of the SICU/CCU for many years, mentoring new nurses and helping grow a team of critical care nurses. “When her treatments prevented her from being able to safely take care of patients, Sunsi transferred, and while her calling was providing direct patient care to the critically ill, this nurse insisted she continue to make a difference, so she transferred to the quality department. In her role as quality analyst, she was able to use her clinical knowledge and experience navigating the electronic medical record to abstract core measures. However, she didn’t just abstract the data. She worked with nurses to help them understand core measures and how/where to document them.

“Sunsi worked collaboratively with staff, physicians and nurse leaders to improve compliance with core measures and patient outcomes. She developed tools to be used by the bedside staff and collaborated with respiratory therapy to encourage them to help with smoking cessation education for patients.”

In her nomination of Brual, her colleague, Johanna Gravesmill, remembered “Sunsi” working nights in CCU until she was put on light duty as she struggled with cancer, “so I met her about nine months ago, when she began working in the quality department. Through all of her struggles, she continued to fight the good fight, and her faith and dedication to her family and her profession always shined through. She remained focused on patient care and truly dedicated her life to making a difference in the lives of others.

“Our hospital has lost a bright light in her passing, but her legacy of compassion remains. Sunsi was always upbeat and determined, even in the worst of times. She gave of herself always above and beyond. I was never able to see her working in direct patient care, but in her role in the quality department, she was always the professional who remained steadfast in her focus – providing the very best to our patients and the families we serve. I will miss her generous, gracious spirit.”

Brenda Butler, RN, wrote this about her dear friend and co-worker: “Sunsi Brual lost her three-year battle with cancer sooner than we had expected. During her illness, we all were honored to be able to bring Sunsi back into the CCU, where she had cared for so many patients during her career. This also allowed us to provide her the comforting care she needed in her last hours.

“While it was an intensely emotional time for all of us, it was our privilege and honor to give back to the one who, for so many years, we had all witnessed giving to so many others. Sunsi always cared for others in her life. She immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines for a better life, full of hopes and dreams, which were realized when she became a surgical intensive care nurse. She always strived to be the best.

“True to form, she did not stop there and developed into an outstanding lead charge nurse for the critical care unit and later, an equally outstanding quality analyst.

“Being the fighter she was, Sunsi refused to be deterred by her illness and she kept her spirits high,” Butler added. “This nurse also continued to work between chemotherapy and radiation treatments, remaining optimistic and vigilant.

“I have never known a nurse or person of her caliber in my lifetime. Sunsi was a woman of grace and character with extremely high standards for herself and those around her. She set the bar high and raised it higher every year for all of us, pushing us to levels we never imagined.”

Brual’s colleague Kay Dillard wrote: “She was everything a nurse should be and deserves to be recognized. Kind, compassionate, caring – she was an exceptional nurse. She was good inside and out. Sunsi always gave her best – to her family, her coworkers and her patients. She was dedicated to Tomball Regional and continued to work as long as her illness permitted. Sunsi was the kind of nurse we should all strive to be.”

Margarita Enriquez, RN – CCU, remembered her first days at TRMC’s CCU: “Sunsi is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. When I was new in the intensive care unit, she took me under her wing and showed me the ‘ropes.’ Before long, I was a charge nurse myself.”

“You couldn’t say no to her because she was such an authentic leader,” Butler said. “Where others might burn out, she never lost a passion for nursing. She was, indeed, just as the artwork on her desk depicted, an angel with a stethoscope.”

Betty Clark, RN IV, delirium grant educator and research nurse – Houston Methodist Hospital

Betty Clark opened her first health clinic for her dolls when she was 3. As she recalled, one of her first duties as a nurse was making herself a nurse’s cap out of folded paper – a mere detail, but important, nonetheless.

Even today, almost a half-century later, her colleagues recognize Clark’s strength as a nurse, in part, because of her ability to focus on the smallest detail, and her high expectations of herself and her team.

“I spent a lot of time at the doctor’s office as a child and really liked his nurse,” she said, “and my maternal grandmother repeatedly told me how much she wished her first granddaughter would be a nurse.”

It has been 45 years since Clark earned her BSN. Never once has she questioned her decision to become a nurse, and after her undergraduate degree in nursing, she went on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Virginia in order to teach, share her passion for nursing and to be a role model for the next generations of nurses.

After teaching appointments at Piedmont Community College and Austin Peay University, Clark – who doesn’t pass up an opportunity to provide care to colleagues and co-workers – moved to Texas, where she served as director of nursing education for 15 years at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), a freestanding rehabilitation hospital.

During that time, she created independent education services to teach seminars, including certifications.

She then joined Houston Methodist Hospital as a clinical development specialist and helped create lesson plans for orienting new nurses and continuing education (CE) presentations.

During this time, Clark was instrumental in touching the lives of many new nurses at Houston Methodist and helping them launch careers.

As the opportunity to work within a grant to increase awareness and prevention of delirium in geriatric patients came about, Clark welcomed her new role as nurse educator, teaching novice and experienced nurses about delirium (confusion related to illness or medications), its negative consequences and how to recognize the dangerous syndrome earlier in hospitalization.

Because delirium is very common, it is not often recognized by the most experienced caregivers, and because symptoms and patient presentation change due to medication or infection, delirium is not always detected.

Her dedication to education is reflected in her enthusiasm in continuing to educate nurses throughout the nation, focusing on stroke and cognitive assessment. Certified in rehabilitation, she balances a clinical practice in rehabilitation and her work in geriatrics.

In her current role at Houston Methodist, Clark’s passion for teaching and her love of nursing are evident. An expert in recognizing and treating the symptoms of delirium, especially in older patients, she has taught scores of nurses and hospital staff how to recognize the side effects of it, the pharmacological impact delirium has and how to care for patients experiencing delirium.

“With the delirium project,” one nominator wrote, “in the last three years, Betty has educated almost 3,000 nurses across the (Houston) Methodist Hospital System. She has helped make the delirium assessment tool a seamless part of daily nursing assessment. In turn, it has helped identify cases of delirium earlier in the hospital stay and extra care can be taken for the frail patients. She has helped make delirium more known as a syndrome; therefore, it can better identified and improve patient care for all geriatric patients at the Houston Methodist Hospital System.”

Another nominator wrote: “Betty Clark also is the most caring, energetic, driven and successful nurse we have ever encountered and should be recognized for her efforts as an amazing nurse educator and leader in the field of nursing.

“She is the lead nurse educator, championing a change of outcomes for delirium patients to the nursing staff in all five Houston Methodist Hospitals, which consist of a large, academic center and four community hospitals. It is a huge undertaking to be the lead nurse educator for such an immense project, but Betty has successfully instilled delirium assessment as part of nurses’ daily routine, emphasizing the value of cognition as part of a patient’s overall well-being.”

Clark calls her current assignment “the highlight of my career, allowing me to use every degree, every certification and every level of training. It’s just perfect job and it allows me to do what I love.”

Becky (Rebecca) Cushen, RN, school nurse – Spillane Middle School, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD

A Spillane Middle School student had a pre-existing heart condition, and going down stairs between classes, she collapsed and became unresponsive. School nurse Becky Cushen, RN, assessed the incident and with the help of a faculty member, began administering CPR while another faculty went to get the school’s automated external defibrillator (AED).

Thanks to quick response and teamwork, Cushen’s expertise and assessment skills, and having the right medical equipment on hand, the student survived. Cushen has continued to advocate for all faculty members to be trained and certified in CPR.

Some people find their passion for nursing after spending several years in another field. Cushen said there was never a time in her life when she didn’t want to be a nurse.

“As a child, I received a little book titled, “Nancy Plays Nurse,” and that was all I needed,” she said.”I earned my nursing degree and my RN 30 years ago at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. From that time until we moved to Houston, I worked in pediatric ICU, pediatrics and neonatal ICU because I really like kids.”

She became a school nurse after working as a school nurse substitute.

“I don’t know anyone who goes to nursing school to become a school nurse,” Cushen said, “but I love being a school nurse. I love my job and I love the people I work with.”

Moving to Houston when her husband was transferred from Chattanooga in 2002, Cushen received multiple and varied accolades from the teachers, administrators and co-workers who nominated her for the Salute to Nurses honor – maybe the most in the history of Salute to Nurses.

However, a nomination from one parent summed up this nurse’s caring and love, her willingness to go the extra mile and the lasting imprint she has made on Spillane Middle School’s 1,000 students, teachers and parents. As the nomination said:

“This nurse cares for my son, who is a Type 1 diabetic. She is very compassionate and caring. She goes above and beyond to care for not only my child, but all of the children at Spillane Middle School. Ms. Rebecca Cushen is an exceptional nurse.

“One example of her many great acts occurred today. My son had been out ill for several days, only to return to school with a lot of make-up work and examinations at the end of the grading period. I made arrangements with the … teacher for my son to come early for an examination. Apparently there was a staff meeting that same morning and my son was not allowed to proceed to tutorials.

“Once I received word about this, I contacted the front office but received no answer. So I called Ms. Cushen, and she was able to provide me and my child with assistance. He was able to take his examination. This is just one of the many ways she goes above and beyond to do her job as a nurse and then some.

“She ensures my child checks his blood sugar levels regularly as scheduled and provides educational medical advice to him. She cares about the children’s health and well-being. She is deserving of this recognition and I hope you feel that she is as well.”

About being selected as one of the Chronicle’s Top 10 Nurses, Cushen said she had read about the award for many years, but never expected to be honored.

“I was surprised, actually speechless,” she said. “The day the Chronicle called, we were having an appreciation breakfast to honor our volunteers. The principal called me in to announce my selection and the whole cafeteria applauded.”

“Many things happen in my office that remind me why I’m here,” Cushen said. “Some situations are more difficult than others. Some students feel they can come to me as an adult who will listen, and I see that as an honor. As I said before, that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m a nurse.”

Ann Demny, RN, newborn and infant screening coordinator – Texas Children’s Hospital

A newborn and infant screening coordinator at Texas Children’s Hospital, Ann Demny is responsible for ensuring all babies in the large neonatal intensive unit are screened for potential life-threatening disorders. In this role, she has been instrumental in improving TCH’s newborn blood-screening outcomes.

In addition, Demny has been involved in the critical congenital heart disease (CCHD) screening and has trained more than 400 nurses at TCH. She also collaborates with leaders of community hospitals to bring awareness and education of CCHD screening to those facilities.

Her work in newborn screening has been recognized nationally, and she was selected by the Texas Department of State Health Services to participate in New Steps (newborn screening technical assistance and evaluation program).

This national program is designed to provide data, technical assistance and training to newborn screening programs across the country and to assist states with quality improvement initiatives.

Charleta Guillory, M.D., one of Demny’s nominators, said: “I am nominating Ann Demny because of my admiration for her commitment to her profession and her service to the thousands of babies whose lives have been positively impacted through newborn screening. My knowledge of her abilities is based on more than 30 years of working with her to improve patient testing and treatment at Texas Children’s Hospital. I have had numerous opportunities to work closely with her, both personally and professionally, and have developed a great appreciation of her knowledge, experience and expertise.

“I have seen, first-hand, her abilities as a trailblazer and exceptional leader, as she was able to standardize and operationalize retinopathy testing for premature infants and newborn blood screenings in advance of state mandates or reported outcomes.

“I also have witnessed Ann’s capabilities in all aspects of teaching, leading and mentoring. I work with her routinely in several areas of critical patient care, including ECMO (a procedure that uses a machine to take over the work of the lungs and sometimes the heart), body cooling and retinopathy of prematurity.

“While working with her on ECMO patients, Ann found the process minimized the time families were able to spend with their child and recognized the barrier to family involvement. Resident and fellow interaction also reduced the family’s access to the patient. With her direction, resident participation was modified to ensure the patient’s and family’s needs were met first.

“I believe this nurse encompasses all of what every health professional should be: intelligent, knowledgeable and compassionate. She works very well with the health care team and has unquestionable care and passion for neonatal nursing. She is very determined, and if her findings do not yield results, she’s never afraid to ask questions or ask for help. She demonstrates excellent communication skills is extremely articulate as well as self-sufficient and dedicated.

“Demny has obtained a heightened level of success within Texas Children’s Hospital due to her communication skills and as an effective teacher and process manager. Whether it’s communicating with providers, hospital leadership, family members or support staff, Ann is successful in understanding and subsequently complying to meet regulatory requirements.

“As an instructor for neonatal resuscitation, she further refined her ability to lead and educate national and international health care providers … and I have an immense appreciation for her, personally and professionally.”

Malissa Gonzalez, RN, director of emergency and observation services – Tomball Regional Medical Center

If Malissa Gonzalez were speaking to a class of nursing students, somewhere in her presentation would be advice to include rural nursing as part of their journey. But, let’s start at the beginning of her journey.

“My mother was a CNA in a Brenham hospital during the time when you could take your children to work,” she said. “I was able to watch her interactions with the patients, with the nuns, which made me want to become a nurse. I always wanted to become a nurse. I just had to figure out how to realize my dream.”

As the single mother of three (she has recently married and her family now includes seven children), she attended Prairie View A&M University’s College of Nursing, leaving Brenham early each morning to navigate her commute to Houston in order to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

After graduation, she went to work at rural hospitals.

“Because there were so few nurses, if someone was out sick, the rest of us covered their areas, so we had to learn each area – ER, ICU, labor and delivery, med-surg, adult and pediatric areas,” she said. “With that experience, I got a broader picture and not a direct focus early in my career.”

Now working on a master’s degree in nursing leadership, Gonzalez said one thing she learned in her undergrad experience was it’s OK to ask questions and it’s OK to admit you don’t know or have a weakness, but you must have the ability to find the answer, develop weaknesses into strengths and figure it out.

In her nomination, Tomball Regional Medical Center assistant chief nursing officer Michelle Henderson said, “Over the past year, she has led her team in the successful opening of a Provider-Based Emergency Department as well as an expansion project in the main emergency department. While juggling concurrent construction projects, she was able to achieve improved quality and patient-satisfaction outcomes. Malissa is a leader who leads by example. She supports and mentors her charge nurses and inspires the staff to help meet the organization’s mission of providing the highest quality health care and exceptional service to every patient and family.

“Her knowledge and experience in emergency department leadership, combined with her collaborative approach with other leaders in the organization, have helped the department be successful. Under Malissa’s leadership, the emergency department has had a significant reduction in the number of patients who leave without being seen.”

Comfortable wearing many hats, Gonzalez said the hospital’s new emergency department, located in Magnolia, has been embraced enthusiastically by the community.

“While we’re about 10 miles from the hospital, patients in the new ER receive the same level of care as they would if they had driven to the hospital’s ER. We listened to our patients, looked at ZIP codes and chose a location. We’ve doubled the volume of patients in Magnolia, and EMS providers are pleased to have an additional facility where they can transport emergency patients,” she said.

She has worked with the local school district as well, providing health-related programs in the schools and providing help with student physicals and other sports medicine issues.

“We also have helicopter contracts and just recently (transported) a burn patient from Magnolia to UTMB – Galveston,” she said, “and we provide medical coverage for athletic events, hold Teddy Bear clinics (teaching basic first aid) for Boy and Girl Scouts working on medical badges, plus we’ve provided community health education opportunities.”

Gonzalez said it’s in her DNA to serve, citing her mother and her many mentors as role models.

“I would never ask someone to do anything I wouldn’t do,” she said, “and it think it’s important to recognize staff for their hard work and accomplishments, but I also hold my staff accountable when there are opportunities for improvement.”

“Malissa recognizes her department is often the first impression for patients and their families of the hospital, and collaborates with physicians and other departments to ensure that patients are receiving appropriate and timely care,” Henderson wrote.

A fellow nurse wrote this in her nomination: “On a daily basis, great leaders carry themselves in a professional manner when dealing with staff and patients. I want to have a leader I can look up to with respect and admiration, and Malissa is that leader.

“Employees are engaged and participate in decision-making on the unit, and Malissa supports as well as leads her team. She is a role model for staff, professional and expects the same from her staff.”

“I love taking care of patients and taking care of my staff,” Gonzalez said. “I’m still in shock about this award,” she said. “I am touched and humbled.”

Janet Jewitt, RN, school nurse – Cypress Lakes High School

If you have more than one teenager living under your roof, you can relate to the fact that sometimes things get hectic.

Now put yourself in Janet Jewitt’s shoes as school nurse at Cypress Lakes High School (3,700 students and 300-plus faculty). On a recent school day, more than 100 students visited her office, each with a unique problem or issue.

Jewitt, an RN from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, grew up watching her mother, a community health nurse, making a difference.

“I wanted that same opportunity – to make a difference in the community,” said Jewitt, who took the job of school nurse when Cypress Lakes High School opened eight years ago. “I knew nursing was a career that offered many choices and was highly transportable, so I chose the University of Calgary and enrolled in their Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.”

After graduation, her first job was working in a hospital intensive care unit.

“That’s an extremely important field,” she said, “but I realized it was not my passion, so I started working in the preventative aspect of community health nursing.”

“After moving to Houston, I couldn’t start working until my visa was in order,” Jewitt said. “During that time I did some deep soul searching, asking myself where my passion really was. That’s when, after I had finalized my visit, that I switched to school nursing.”

But don’t think her work is all about sick students.

When the school’s health-science teacher asked if Jewitt would develop a rotation through her clinic to supplement the limited rotations they were sharing with another school at the hospital, Jewitt jumped at the chance to accommodate more students thinking about health careers.

As one nomination described this rotation: “Nurse Jewitt is an exceptional nurse. Every time someone comes into the clinic, she tries to make them feel as comfortable as possible. She’s the most gentle lady I ever met. She has a very gentle voice, is always smiling and is like the nurturing mother of the school. I was able to have the clinic rotation and nurse Jewitt was very informative. She is genuinely concerned with all the students and faculty who visit her office.”

Jewitt finds having students rotating through her clinic a fun change of pace. She’s also impressed by the students’ level of maturity and their thoughtfulness as far as thinking about medical careers.

“I think they’re surprised at how many students come in,” she said, “and it’s exciting to see them see and understand the diversity of issues we can address, such as immunization requirements … and I think they see why the clinic is needed.”When asked about being a school nurse, Jewitt said, “I really enjoy my job. I’m usually busy and just hoping I’m doing my best for every student, and at the end of the day, I ask, ‘Did I do the best thing for each patient?'”

One nominator (an athletic trainer) wrote, “Janet makes my job manageable. I deal with hundreds of athletes on a daily basis and Janet is the best team player – in constant communication with us in terms of athletes, and assisting our injured athletes move through the school when they are incapacitated.

“She works with us to create management plans for our diabetic and asthmatic students and is never too busy to give a second opinion. She provides us with yearly training on glucagon and epi-pen administration. I hear stories of challenging relationships other athletic trainers have with their school nurse and these remind me how lucky we are to have Janet as ours. We work well as a team, and this enables us to provide the best medical care to our entire student body.”

Sherry Nelson, RN, JD, director of clinical effectiveness and patient safety – Houston Methodist West Hospital

When Sherry Nelson was a youngster, she babysat the children of a nurse, Vivian Dow.

“She let me know that women – even women from our rural area – could have their own careers,” said Nelson, a nurse since 1979. “And from an early age, I wanted to be in health care. I wanted to be a nurse.

“Once I got into nursing school, I became engrossed in how nursing makes a difference, beginning with its history and all the leaders in early nursing. My professor, Dr. Teresa Christy, helped me know that individuals deserved to be proud in the difference they could make, whatever their specialty,” Nelson said.

Starting with her first job at a local nursing home and becoming a licensed practical nurse, Nelson knew nurses had many options, and after earning her BSN from the University of Iowa, was able to travel through her work with various organizations.

In Minnesota, where nurses are unionized, she was active in areas impacted by collective bargaining and, to find an answer to her question about why nurses believed unions and going on strike was necessary, she enrolled in law school, where she earned the Juris Doctor degree.

“Law school also taught me that nurses need to document in order to protect their patients, but health care is complicated, which I’ve always known, but the depth of knowledge was what I was after,” she said. “After law school, because I missed nursing, I went back to hospital (work) because that’s where my love was.”

One nominator wrote: “Sherry goes above and beyond her nursing duties. Sherry’s heart is all about patient care and the nursing profession. Her philosophy of nursing encompasses respect, care, excellence, responsibility and best nursing practices. This philosophy is what inspires us as nurses to continue in our profession.”

In management, she encourages employees to take pride in what they do.

“It’s important for all employees have the room to be creative, and it’s better for all involved if you can put fun into the workplace,” she said, adding she regularly gives out rewards, which may be large or small.

“I like the challenge of engaging employees,” Nelson said. “I invite employees to use me as a sounding board and to brainstorm ideas to make everyone successful.

“Unique to nursing – because nurses influence so many people – is what they accomplish any time they touch a patient and how they affect good care for patients. It is all about making a difference in patients’ lives, and that always has been my goal,” she said. “Of course we want our patients to be satisfied – but equally important is to make sure we do what’s best for our patients.”

As a nurse leader, Nelson finds more and more hats to wear.

“I see it as a privilege to sit at the bedside, providing reassurance and holding the hand of a patient nearing their transition,” she said. “I also love teaching and do lots of speaking.”

She also finds time to work internationally with hospitals in Mexico, providing consultation on risk and safety programs, and recently serving as a guest speaker at the Latin American Quality Conference in Mexico City.

One employee commented about how Nelson gives selflessly of herself: “She is the first to organize a fundraiser for United Way, to put together backpacks for children to head back to school with fresh supplies or buy presents for families at Christmastime.

“Sherry also works tirelessly with Christ Clinic to ensure all people who need care receive the best care possible. Sherry is just one of those people who sees someone in need and just helps. Her passion is helping the less fortunate and you see it in everything she does. I would describe Sherry as a teacher.

“Sherry just wants to share her experiences with as many people as she can, and her wealth of knowledge is immense.”

Esther Valdez, RN, imaging/cancer nurse – Houston Northwest Medical Center

Houston is 185 miles from Beeville, where Esther Valdez grew up, yet her career in nursing has allowed her to make many much longer journeys, shepherding thousands of patients through diagnosis, the unknowns and to a more positive place – breast cancer survival.

Her awards have been many, including Tenet’s Hero of the Year in 2008 for excellence in nursing and her hard work, but her prized possession is an album compiled by the eight founders of Care, Share and Be Aware, the breast cancer support group Valdez has facilitated the past 17 years. She also was thrilled when the announcement of her selection for the Houston Chronicle’s Salute to Nurses was made during the support group’s annual celebration of life festivities.

A dynamic leader, Valdez is soft-spoken and extremely thoughtful in a one-on-one situation, and it doesn’t take long before she’s focused on her two passions – her two daughters, and her patients at Houston’s Northwest Medical Center.

“Initially, I wanted to be a nurse because I was following my older sister through the college prep VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America) program in health care at school, but because I loved taking care of people in my first after-school job (she was 16), I think I always wanted to become a nurse,” she said.

After graduating from high school, she earned her Associate Degree in Nursing from Delmar College in Corpus Christi, and went to work at a Tenet Hospital in College Station. That was 41 years ago.

This is a nurse who makes weekend rounds and house calls to check on patients. This is also a nurse who takes time to listen and carries a rosary in her pocket – always – for when patients ask her to pray with them.

But her journey in becoming the excellent nurse navigator and facilitator she is today wasn’t without a few bumps in the road.

“On my second day on the job, I was left with a pregnant patient,” Valdez said. “She was closer to delivering than any of us knew and had her baby in her bed. I remember it was summer and stifling hot in the hospital, where only one section had air conditioning. A wisp of air came through, blowing hard enough to slam the door. From that time on, I never wanted to be anywhere else but with patients.”

Since then, she has worked in many areas of the hospital.

“Both my mother and father died of cancer,” she said. “My job in the breast cancer center makes it possible for me to honor their memories. This also is truly the most fulfilling job, mainly because it’s definitely nursing from the heart.”

One nominator wrote, “Esther Valdez is a Certified Breast Patient Navigator and a MammaCare specialist. She works with a group of coworkers she respects and trusts. It is for that reason she often talks about the team that takes care of patients from screening to surgery and beyond if necessary.

“She has an oncology certification and is a Certified Breast Care Nurse, both she uses as tools to aid the breast cancer survivors with their journey. She loves helping coordinate all the events at The Breast Center, especially the annual reception for the Care, Share and Be Aware support group members.

“She is very supportive of her staff and encourages them to share knowledge and know that every patient is unique. She is very cognizant of barriers the patients have and goes the extra mile to help them.”

“One patient had to travel across town for radiation therapy twice a day,” Valdez said. “It was all very tiring, so I asked if we could provide a place for her to rest in between treatments and not spend the time traveling back and forth. This allowed the patient to rest and have a snack before returning home.”

But Valdez didn’t stop with providing this accommodation.

As a nominator wrote, “This remarkable nurse visited this same patient and her family across town several times during her transition at the end of her life.”

Along with her nursing duties, Valdez serves on the Cancer Advisory Committee and the Physicians Advisory Board.

She has participated in the Komen Race for the Cure for 16 years and has encouraged family and friends to come and support survivors riding buses Houston Northwest provides the day of the event.

And her daughters support their mother in most all the extracurricular activities she participates in or organizes.

“We see how excited she is about her nursing profession. Whether at the bedside, at a support group meeting or out in the community, she is going to embrace you, support you and educate you, for sure. We have been on the receiving end of such caring and love as her daughters,” they said. “We’ve also seen her evolve over the years in her work with breast cancer patients and the many survivors.”

Saeed Yacouby, RN, MS, DNP, certified registered nurse anesthetist and chief of CRNA Group – the Heart Center, Texas Children’s Hospital

In high school, Saeed Yacouby made the decision to seek a career in the hospital setting.

“I wanted to work in health care and moved to Houston to attend nursing school at UT Health-Houston School of Nursing,” he said. “I didn’t know nursing was a majority females, but when I told my friends, they joked, saying being a nurse wasn’t cool.”

One BSN, two master’s degrees and a doctorate later, he’s still in the hospital, caring for patients and he leads the CRNA Group in the Heart Center at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“I was introduced to a nurse anesthetist and that became my goal,” he said, “and now I get to care for one patient at a time, providing the best possible care and incorporating the science I’ve learned in a hands-on situation.”

Yacouby became a neonatal nurse practitioner, working in that area for seven years before earning his credentials as a certified pediatric nurse anesthetist and becoming Texas Children’s first nurse anesthetist in 2005. In every area he has worked, Yacouby has earned high praise and respect.

A fellow nurse anesthetist/nominator wrote: “Saeed paved the way for nurse practitioners at Texas Children’s Hospital, and because of the solid foundation of trust he built, we have grown into a practice of 30 CRNAs that is vital for quality patient care. As our chief CRNA, he led by example.

“Today he gives lectures to student nurse anesthetists, presents at national meetings and is dedicated to the pediatric anesthesia team at TCH. Many times he has sacrificed his personal time for the benefit of safer patient care and/or another CRNA to be home with their family. Many of the anesthesiologists we work with will not start a surgery or procedure unless he is available.

“He is invaluable to our team as he is the most experienced, professional and excellent pediatric cardiovascular nurse.”

In working with infants and children with congenital heart problems, Yacouby said many of the patients he sees are at high risk.

“It’s like you are at war with the disease,” he said, “and that’s when the science and experience comes in. After a while, science becomes an art.”

In another nomination, the CRNA was praised for his compassion and humility: “He is effective leader who has built a world-class team of CRNAs dedicated to the care of children with heart disease undergoing various procedures and interventions. I recall how his attention to detail and his swift response helped recognize the dislodgement of an atrial septal defect (ASD) device that had been placed inside the heart of a child. Saeed was carefully monitoring the child, and as soon as he noticed changes in the heart rhythm, he alerted the entire team, and as he suspected, the device had dislodged.

“He participated in the care of the child while the cardiologists extracted the device and the child was out of danger.

“I salute Saeed as a model who represents our outstanding CRNA group and proudly sets an example for excellence in nursing care and teamwork.”

In his career of working with pediatric patients, Yacouby realizes the patient’s family members are going through quite a bit during this time.

“You must remember, it’s not just a patient you’re treating, this is somebody’s child,” he said.

In a nomination, it was pointed out how he has been pivotal in advancing the role for CRNAs and advanced practice nurses in the anesthesia department at TCH.

“Saeed’s work ethic, coupled with his personality, make him a role model. He serves as a leader and mentor among CRNAs and sacrifices his time for the best interests of the department.”

Salute to Nurses 2016: Top 10 nurses earn deserved recognition –

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