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Meet the 2014 DC/Maryland/Virginia GEM winners

Monday July 14, 2014
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Nurse.com prides itself in recognizing the accomplishments of nurses of excellence at its GEM (Giving Excellence Meaning) award programs. Held in various cities throughout the United States, these celebrations honor exceptional nurses from all specialties and practice settings, and each culminates in the naming of six regional winners in six different categories. The regional winners move on to compete in the GEM national nurse of the year program.

“Our nursing excellence GEM Awards program shines brightly once again as we salute our 2014 regional winners,” said Eileen Williamson, RN, MSN, senior vice president and chief nurse executive. “Nominated and selected by their colleagues, they truly epitomize nursing at its best. We are honored to present them with our prestigious GEM awards and privileged to recognize them publicly for their many contributions to nursing and healthcare.”

Nurse.com is pleased to introduce you to the 2014 Nurse.com DC/Maryland/Virginia GEM regional award winners.

Advancing and Leading the Profession

Laura Anderko, RN, PhD
Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values Based Healthcare, Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, Washington, D.C.

Anderko did not expect to win a Nursing Excellence GEM Award.

“As much as people can sometimes say they are impressed with my accomplishments, it’s not your typical president of a hospital or manager of a unit,” said Anderko, who is nationally known for her work in environmental changes and health effects. “I’ve been in public health my entire career and have been in academia for over 30 years of that. So I was really surprised and very happy to be a recipient.”

Although nursing is beginning to embrace environmental health as integral to practice, winning the award for Advancing and Leading the Profession signifies these contributions are important to nursing, she said. Anderko prepares “the next generation of public health and primary care nurses to provide equity-based nursing care to underserved and vulnerable populations,” her nominator wrote.

Her duties include organizing academic activities related to health equity, launching new avenues for service learning for students and convening campus partners who have a stake in health equity to help reduce health disparities.

A nurse since 1977, Anderko realized her calling after her high school boyfriend was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. “I had wanted to become a doctor,” she said. “I spent a lot of hours in the hospital with my boyfriend and realized that the nurses did the important work, and that’s when I changed my mind.”

Her parents possessed a strong sense of social justice and a willingness to care for those unable to care for themselves. “My passion, drive and tenacity is in my DNA,” said Anderko, who in July 2013 was named a White House Champion of Change for her work on climate change and public health.

She developed her interest in environmental health while working as a director of a home health agency, where she made periodic home visits. Anderko recalled visiting a young mom whose baby was born without a brain.

“I wondered how it could happen,” said Anderko, who started looking at where the mother lived, which was next to an industry near a river. “I began putting the pieces together as far as it possibly being an environmental exposure that caused this problem. That began my journey into environmental health.”

Clinical Nursing, Inpatient

Nancy Marie Corbitt, RN, BSN, OCN, CRNI
Senior clinical nurse 2, University of Maryland Medical Center & Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center, Baltimore

For veteran nurse Corbitt, winning the 2014 Nursing Excellence GEM Award was an experience that thrilled and humbled her.

“It brings me joy that I won that, but I didn’t win it by myself,” Corbitt said. “I won it because of my colleagues and peers who wrote it up. It’s a very prestigious award and I was certainly in good company. I was quite honored by it.”

Known as the go-to person and “cornerstone of this facility” by her nominator, Corbitt has worked her entire 28-year career in the cancer center, which is good news for her colleagues who often seek out her expertise.

Corbitt is driven not only to be the best nurse she can be, but also “to give the rest of us traveling in her wake the opportunity and challenge to be better,” her nominator wrote.

She has passed her love for the profession onto her daughter, who recently graduated from nursing school.

What Corbitt is most passionate about is taking care of patients.

“Obviously there are a lot of opportunities in nursing and different avenues to take, which is good for those people,” she said. “For me, there is nothing better than to provide direct care for that sick patient sitting in the bed.”

She also enjoys educating oncology nurses. “I teach and mentor ... but doing direct care is what gives me joy and that’s why I will always be a direct care nurse, which I do about 75% of the time,” said Corbitt, who always is working to improve her skills.

Corbitt handles challenging situations with ease. Her work unit recently hired 22 new graduate nurses who needed to be oriented within the same year. “This is a daunting prospect for a 36-bed unit, but Nancy not only accepted the challenge, but completely rebuilt the program of orientation and preceptorship to support this influx of new nurses,” her nominator wrote.

In recent years, she has attained her BSN, been promoted to senior clinical nurse 2, received her CRNI certification and was selected as president of the local Oncology Nurses Society chapter, among other activities.

Corbitt discovered her life’s calling at age 16.

“I worked at a nursing home and I just loved caring for people,” she said. “I just kind of knew from there that was what I wanted to do.”

Education and Mentorship

Angela Renkema, RN, BSN
Nurse educator, MedStar Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center

Renkema, who oversees the clinical and professional development of more than 2,000 nurse associates and collaborates with her colleagues in facilitating nursing orientations and the nurse residency program, was shocked when she learned she won a Nursing Excellence GEM Award in the category of Education and Mentorship. Her proud parents were there with her, coming all the way from their home in Canada to attend the event.

“It was a huge honor,” she said. “It meant that I am trying to be the best in my field and to make a difference to the patients at the bedside, and also for the nurses who are taking care of the patients. I think through education you really touch many patients because you teach the basics of nursing.”

Accomplishments that contributed to her award include her efforts in guiding the care of geriatric patients, helping nurses understand the sepsis cascade and that early prevention is key, and her informal mentoring of new graduate nurses.

Renkema is known and respected as an “educator’s educator,” according to one of two colleagues who nominated her for the award.

A nurse for a decade, Renkema credits her reputation for mastering information to experience gained working as a travel nurse for four years.

“I went to a lot of different hospitals,” she said. “I figured out how to learn things very quickly and be told things only once. I learned how to ask great questions and to remember the answers. Sometimes people ask me questions and I’m like, ‘I have no idea how I know this, but this is the answer.’”

As a new nurse, she appreciated and benefited when mentors shared advice, ideas and practices. Mentoring allows her “to help people get better at what they are doing,” said Renkema, who is known for her steady support to staff and nurse residents.

In college she was uncertain about her career path, but a conversation with her mother led to an “aha” moment, Renkema said.

“She asked, ‘Have you ever thought of nursing?’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you for saying that.’ I walked over to the nursing department and asked them all about the program.”

And she never looked back.

Home, Community and Ambulatory Care

Theresa Pinto, RN, BSN, OCN
Staff nurse, The Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Pinto longed to become a nurse after reading about Florence Nightingale in the eighth grade.

Pursuing her dream career led her from her homeland of India to the U.S. 12 years ago. A dedicated nurse since 2006, Pinto never expected to win a coveted Nursing Excellence GEM Award.

“I was 50 years old when I went to nursing school and I never imagined I would be winning such an honorable award,” she said. “There are so many nurses who are doing such wonderful things for their patients and I am just one of them. I was surprised and I am very thankful for it.”

Widely admired as a practice expert dedicated to empowering patients and improving their outcomes, Pinto not only has enhanced organizational performance at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center, but also has had an impact on 132 VA cancer care programs across the nation. She created the “Cancer Care Education Handbook” that serves as a template for all VA hospitals. Individualized for each patient, the handbook includes information about cancer diagnosis, treatment, side effects, nutrition, alternative medicine and survivorship care.

Her care for cancer patients often involves extra effort. One patient told her he wanted to marry a woman, but his family did not approve.

“Ms. Pinto took the lead in arranging the wedding, coordinating the chapel and chaplain, seeing that those important to the patient were invited and arranging for a brief reception following the ceremony,” her nominator wrote. “This patient was overjoyed that he was able to marry his love of over 25 years and share it with those important to him.”

She was delighted to help her patient marry before he died.

“I love my patients,” she said. “These are veterans who have fought battles for our freedom and now they are fighting a battle against cancer. I am very privileged to be able to work with our nation’s heroes.”

As a teenager in India, Pinto wanted to help change the face of healthcare after learning about Nightingale, who tended to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century.

“When I came to this country, I was finally able to become a nurse,” she said. “To my great surprise, I became a nurse for soldiers. For me, my dream did come true.”

Patient and Staff Management

Elaine Alexander, RNC-OB, MSN
Patient care director, NICU/FCC, Inova Alexandria (Va.) Hospital

It took a few seconds for Alexander to absorb that she had been selected to win a prestigious Nursing Excellence GEM Award in the category of Patient and Staff Management.

She was sitting next to her fiance “when he nudged me and said, ‘That’s your name.’ I was sitting there with the plaque in my hand and I didn’t realize they called my name. I was stunned,” she said, chuckling.

Praised by her nominator for being a visionary, Alexander is credited with making the unit, hospital, system and community “much better merely because she has infected all with her unique brand of effectiveness and drive.”

The nominator wrote that Alexander’s charm, charisma and enthusiasm touch everyone who works with her.

Alexander, who oversees 125 nurses, played an instrumental role in the hospital’s journey toward earning Baby-Friendly designation, and she is co-chairwoman of a collaborative effort to make the designation system-wide.

Her responsibilities range from managing and tracking a budget for the family centered care and neonatal intensive care units to taking patient assignments.

“I have put everything that I have into my role for our staff, our patients and our community,” she said.

A nurse for 35 years, her interest in nursing developed as a girl. While her friends played outside, she sat in her mother’s closet peering at images in her mother’s medical books. Her curiosity about health and nursing grew over the years.

Her pursuit of excellence stems from her mother, who was a nurse midwife in England. When Alexander was 10, the family moved to the U.S. Her mother returned to school for her nursing degree.

“I loved her work ethic,” she said. “That has really affected me growing up. I am a very driven person and I like to look at the big picture.”

Her hard work and dedication was evident when she wrote a breastfeeding policy for the hospital’s Baby-Friendly designation. “The Baby-Friendly USA reviewer commented, ‘It is recommended that the author of this policy be commended for development of this document,’” her nominator wrote.

“That was neat to hear that,” said Alexander, who was a finalist for the Virginia March of Dimes Nurse of the Year in 2013. “I like to think about how something can benefit the majority of people.”

Volunteerism and Service

Heather Wilkerson, RN, BSN, CCRN
Advanced clinical nurse, cardiac ICU clinical nurse educator, John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore

Winning a Nursing Excellence GEM Award in Volunteerism and Service was a tremendous honor for Heather Wilkerson, but it also felt a bit strange.

“I have always been involved with that (volunteering) since I was a teenager, so I’m not used to being publicly acknowledged for that,” Wilkerson said. “It’s just part of how I was raised.”

At John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, she handles the hospital’s annual competency assessment of the CICU registered nurses, organizes orientation of new staff RNs and teaches an intensive care course to new RN graduates.

Growing up in Baltimore, she did volunteer work in the inner city and took mission trips to Mexico and the Bahamas, Wilkerson said. A licensed pastor for the Assemblies of God International Fellowship, she co-leads and hosts a small study group related to Christian-based life skills. She mentors and serves as youth pastor, along with her husband, Glenn. Their efforts helped to grow the church’s second campus from 40 to about 500 people within five years.

“We have been involved with youth groups even before we got married,” Wilkerson said. “We were youth pastors in an inner-city church. It’s more like a lifestyle.”

For colleagues, the recognition opened a window on Wilkerson’s life outside the hospital, where she has spent her entire 23-year career. Some co-workers were unaware she was an ordained minister.

Since winning the award, more colleagues ask about her involvement with the A21 Campaign, a global nonprofit organization that works to fight human trafficking through awareness activities such as fundraisers.

“It’s phenomenal when you start looking into how rampant it is; even in America, girls are just sucked in,” she said. “They don’t even know what they are getting into.”

Wilkerson, who began working at Bayview Medical Center as an LPN, grew up wanting to be a physician. As valedictorian of her graduating class, she had the grades and drive to succeed but found her calling once she learned the critical role nurses play in patient care.

Winning the award “reiterated that I do care about people in general, whether you are my patient or you’re my co-worker,” said Wilkerson, who serves on numerous multidisciplinary committees.


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