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Texas' First Lady Advocates For Nurses

Monday June 30, 2008
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Anita Perry, RN, MSN, is bringing the experience of 17 years in health care to her current job as first lady of Texas.

After earning a nursing degree from what is now called West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, and her master's from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio (UTHSCSA), Perry worked in a number of nursing positions in surgery, pediatrics, intensive care, administration, and teaching.

In 2000, Perry became first lady of Texas when her husband, Rick, became governor after George W. Bush moved to the White House. In her new role, Perry, 56, has championed a number of healthcare issues, including domestic violence awareness, cancer research, Alzheimer's and vaccination education, and the state's nursing shortage.

In 2001, both of her alma maters established endowments in her name: The Anita Thigpen Perry Nursing Excellence Scholarship provides financial support to students admitted to West Texas A&M's School of Nursing; and the Anita Thigpen Perry Endowment at UTHSCSA supports the Center for Community-Based Health Promotion in Women and Children.

Perry recently provided insight into her role as first lady in a question-and-answer session:

Q: What drew you to the nursing profession?

A: I was fortunate to grow up around nursing. My father, Joe E. Thigpen, MD, was a family physician in the small West Texas town of Haskell. Nurses were my father's partners in health care. They were a tight team built with experience, knowledge and trust. I remember listening to their conversations and watching the graceful approach the nurses took with patients and their families. And I learned the greatest lesson in the halls of that hospital: Nurses not only dispense information and medication to their patients, but also physical and emotional comfort.

Q: Talk about some of the rewards and frustrations you felt during your 17-year nursing career.

A: The rewards far outnumbered the frustrations. The neonatal intensive care unit and administration were my favorite positions; and the thing I would enjoy the most in the future is teaching.

I often say that nurses are the ground soldiers of health care. I truly believe that. Nursing may not always be as glamorous as a drama on television, but to the patients we serve, the time we spend with them is top priority.

Q: How has your medical and nursing background influenced your work as first lady?

A: Everything that I do now related to health care has been influenced by my past experiences and relationships. I can speak from my experience working with victims of abuse of the detrimental impact it has on those lives and the need for more awareness and outreach. I can speak from experience of the importance of nursing education, and I can relate to all of the hardworking nurses who balance a career that can at times be physically and emotionally trying with raising a family.

As a former nurse and a public figure, I feel a personal obligation to share my passion and experience for nursing, encouraging young individuals or even those considering a second career or perhaps a first career later in life, to consider nursing as a career choice.

Q: Discuss the health issues you support in the state. Why are these important?

A: The issue of domestic violence is a very important one. I speak regularly about the need to raise awareness of this very important issue.

Cancer research is another issue that I continue to advocate for. Cancer is such a widespread illness that either directly or indirectly touches everyone and, sadly, it claims the lives of more than 37,000 Texans each year, and more than 95,000 will be diagnosed with the disease this year.

Last year, my husband and I worked with members of the state Legislature on an initiative that will provide an unprecedented $300 million per year for the next 10 years for cancer research.

Vaccinating our children is also one of my top priorities because vaccines not only save lives, they save money. All vaccines that are recommended for routine use are cost savings to society when both direct and indirect costs are considered.

Q: What do you hope to see in the future for nursing and health care in general in Texas?

A: Health care as we know it would simply not exist without the amazing contributions of nurses. Texas is a dynamic state, attracting more than 1,000 new residents each day. Those individuals deserve the best quality health care, and nurses are a vital component of that. So it is my hope that as our population grows, the state can continue to educate nurses to accommodate the current and future growth of our state.

Q: What is your impression of the current nursing shortage? Do you see any end to the shortage in the near future?

A: Increasing the number of nurses in Texas continues to be a priority. Achieving this goal necessitates focusing not only on nursing education, but also on encouraging practicing nurses to stay in the profession and serve as ambassadors to the younger generation. Texas was one of the first states to comprehensively address the nursing shortage through the passage of the Nursing Shortage Reduction Act in 2001. Since that time, Texas has implemented additional innovative solutions to increase the number of nurses educated in Texas. Between 2002 and 2007, a total of $38.8 million has been allocated through the legislative process resulting in a 55% increase in nursing graduates.

An additional $19 million was appropriated in 2007 for the state's Professional Nursing Shortage Reduction Program and Nursing Innovation Grant Program. These grants have enabled recipients to test nursing education models and to develop strategies to increase recruitment and retention of faculty and students, and increase capacity within a nursing program.

In addition, the Texas Legislature in 2007 approved a new innovative program proposed by Gov. Perry to incentivize public-private partnerships between hospitals and academic institutions to address the nursing shortage.


Teresa McUsic is a freelance writer. To comment on this article e-mail editorSC@nurseweek.com.