Award-winning nurses continue to shine

Emory University Hospital nurse Jill Morgan in PPE during a 2015 National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) training session at Emory. Photo by Jack Kearse/ Emory Health Sciences Photography.

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Emory University Hospital nurse Jill Morgan in PPE during a 2015 National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) training session at Emory. Photo by Jack Kearse/ Emory Health Sciences Photography.

Nurses are the heart of health care. The difficulties these professionals have faced during the coronavirus pandemic have served to emphasize that point.

More than two years into the pandemic, the challenging work continues for nurses such as Jill Morgan. Morgan was on Emory University Hospital’s “Team Ebola” and was well-versed about personal protective equipment (PPE) before it became a household word, synonymous with safety.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been celebrating nurses, including Morgan, over the past 17 years. Today, past winners of the AJC’s Nurse Excellence Award inspire readers with thoughts on the world-changing pandemic and the passion they still feel for a profession that thousands are now leaving.

Jill Morgan, Emory University Hospital

Jill Morgan looks back on her nomination for a 2015 AJC Nurse Excellence Award as the turning point in her career – one that positioned her for leadership during the pandemic.

Morgan won the award for her work on Emory University Hospital’s “Team Ebola.” She was the first U.S. nurse to ever care for a patient with this highly contagious disease on U.S. soil.

Her clinical experience in emergency medicine and critical care was vital to the team’s safety, said Dr. Colleen S. Kraft, Emory University Hospital associate chief medical officer.

Morgan said she didn’t know very much about personal protective equipment at the time, but caring for Ebola patients made her want to learn how to make bedside care safer.

“You trust that what is in your supply closet is what you should use. It was only during the Ebola experience that I realized there are levels of gowns and different kinds of masks,” said Morgan, who is in her 36th year of nursing.

Morgan is unit charge nurse for clinical research at Emory, and she teaches nurses about PPE, how to screen patients, and be better prepared.

“It’s been a very rewarding piece, a nice cap to my career,” Morgan said.

Kraft said that Morgan’s dedication to learning about PPE and healthcare safety regulations has paid off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic, says Morgan, “had been a great wake-up call for a lot of people to say we need to take our own safety very seriously. We don’t need healthcare workers to be exposed at the bedside.”

She said nurses need to know what equipment they’re using and why to protect themselves better.

“Jill is a fierce advocate for our nurses and very passionate about not only nursing safety but patient safety as well,” said Rebecca S. Thomas, Emory Healthcare’s director of clinical research nursing.

Morgan, just shy of age 60, lives with her husband in Decatur. She said she loves nursing because it is the perfect blend of art and science. It’s allowed her to interact with people on their darkest days and best days, to be their coach, cheerleader, and even their fitness instructor.

“Despite the risks and the trauma that hospital staff has been through in the last few years, I think nursing is still such a fantastic profession,” Morgan said. “It’s been an opportunity that I can’t imagine my life being without. I just can’t imagine doing the things I’ve gotten to do if I hadn’t been a nurse.”

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Jill Morgan, Emory University Hospital

Credit: Jack Kearse

Jill Morgan, Emory University Hospital

Credit: Jack Kearse

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Jill Morgan, Emory University Hospital

Credit: Jack Kearse

Credit: Jack Kearse

Kelly Hulsey, Piedmont Atlanta Hospital

Kelly Hulsey has had a big job before and during the pandemic: being there for the estimated 1,000 registered nurses who work at Piedmont Atlanta.

Hulsey has spent all 39 years of her career in nursing at Piedmont Atlanta, the last eight as the hospital’s chief nursing officer.

“I think I love my job now more than I ever have,” she said. “You’ve got to feel useful in your work, and we’re all useful these days.”

Hulsey considers a nurse to be “a precious commodity.

“And I want to make sure nurses know their value,” she said.

Hulsey said that, during the pandemic, she and the hospital’s nurses became more comfortable over time with the uncertainties they faced, such as the practices with PPE, the different strains of the virus, the surges of the virus, and even what supplies they were going to have from one day to the next.

“Whether I knew the answer to things, I would always sit down and talk to a person or a group, and just let them vent,” said Hulsey, who came to work for much of the pandemic in her scrubs and was “willing to do whatever I needed to.”

The nursing also staff stepped up.

“Our staff just showed their true colors, becoming so much more agile and able to adapt quickly,” she said.

Hulsey won the AJC’s Nurse Leader Award in 2019, after being credited with improving the quality of patient care at Piedmont Atlanta and helping to elevate from a D-grade hospital in 2014 to an A-grade hospital in 2018.

Piedmont has not been immune to resignations or the appeal of lucrative traveling nurses’ contracts, Hulsey said.

“But I think we’re in a better place right now,” she said. “I think we’re in a better place to rebuild now, and, to me, that’s where the big lift is going to be.”

COVID-19 put the spotlight on nurses, the nurse staffing situation, and the importance of the work that they do, Hulsey, the daughter of a small-town doctor, said.

“I think now we’ve got the motivation and support finally that we need to sustain going forward.”

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Kelly Hulsey, Piedmont Atlanta

Credit: Special to the AJC

Kelly Hulsey, Piedmont Atlanta

Credit: Special to the AJC

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Kelly Hulsey, Piedmont Atlanta

Credit: Special to the AJC

Credit: Special to the AJC

Belinda Williams, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Scottish Rite Hospital

Belinda Williams, 47, believes in the mantra: “nursing is the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

A 2017 AJC Nurse Excellence Award winner, Williams is in the 10th year of her profession and the ninth year caring for the tiniest and most fragile patients in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite.

“I’ve always wanted to work with the babies,” said Williams, who started her career caring for healthy newborns at Northside Hospital.” I knew I would end up with the NICU babies; that would be my path.”

Working through the pandemic was tough, and nurses in her unit had to become more creative in engaging parents who had limited visits with their infants. While some nurses called it quits during such a demanding and dangerous time, Williams said her co-workers pulled together and turned to each other for support.

“We went from heroes to zeroes at one point,” she said, remembering the lockdown’s early days of fanfare that quickly turned to frustrations as the pandemic dragged on. Changing careers was something that even crossed her mind from time to time. However, Williams said she could never step away because nursing for her “is not a job or a career; it’s a calling.”

“I truly love what I do,” she said. “Anytime I thought about quitting, something always happened that made me realize that I’m called to do what I do.”

That rang true when she and a co-worker helped save a baby’s life while at a restaurant. Those heroic actions led to the AJC Nurse Excellence Award. And sometimes it’s the simple things, like when a mom tells her, ‘I’m glad you were the nurse for my baby tonight.’”

As a stress reliever, Williams, who is single, likes to travel and dote on her numerous nieces and nephews. Those getaways didn’t happen during the pandemic.

Williams said she’s grateful nurses are honored once a year and celebrates every nurse who remained.

“This pandemic has been so hard,” she said. “I’m appreciative of being in the field and what we do on a daily basis.”

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Belinda Williams, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite Hospital

Credit: spe

Belinda Williams, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite Hospital

Credit: spe

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Belinda Williams, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite Hospital

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Ronnie Gilbert, Emory Hillandale Hospital

Working through the pandemic was hard on the healthcare staff, but quitting was never an option for veteran nurse Ronnie Gilbert of Emory Hillandale Hospital in Lithonia.

“If you love it, that’s you. That’s your life and what you love doing,” said the 64-year-old in his 43rd year of nursing.

Gilbert loves his job as a nurse administrative supervisor. He ensures all departments function smoothly for patient care -- including patients, physicians, and nurses.

The most challenging part of COVID-19 was realizing he couldn’t help everyone. Gilbert likes knowing he made someone’s life better, either physically or mentally.

“Knowing that I made a difference makes me feel better; it’s my appeal to keep going. That’s my kryptonite,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert received a 2015 AJC Nurse Excellence Award for his superb patient care and his selflessness in getting to work during the city’s historic ice storm in January 2014.

The winter storm caught the city unprepared, and thousands, including Gilbert, became stranded in their cars. He was scheduled to work and wanted to relieve a co-worker trying to get home to her children. On the way in, his car slid off into a ditch about a mile from his house. Instead of turning around and walking home, Gilbert walked in the storm three or four miles to the hospital.

“I told them I would be there, and it took me two or three hours, but I got there,” Gilbert remembered.

Gilbert’s supervisor praised him as a seasoned leader who continues to go above and beyond to meet needs.

During the peaks of the pandemic, we could always count on Ronnie to provide the calm that kept the team grounded as we managed through some of the most difficult days of the surges. He is truly an asset to our team,” said Edna Brisco, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Emory Hillandale Hospital.

Gilbert started his nursing career in South Georgia. For a couple of years, he was an emergency medical technician and loved it but didn’t want to keep getting out in the elements to help people. So after getting his nursing degree, he worked as an emergency room charge nurse at a South Georgia hospital. He has been at Emory for 22 years.

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Ronnie Gilbert, Emory Hillandale Hospital

Credit: spe

Ronnie Gilbert, Emory Hillandale Hospital

Credit: spe

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Ronnie Gilbert, Emory Hillandale Hospital

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

April Addison, Northside Forsyth Hospital

April Addison, an oncology nurse at Northside Forsyth, is still doing the work of an angel.

In 2019, one of Addison’s patients nominated her for the AJC’s Nurse Excellence Award, saying Addison had been an “angel from above” during the patient’s five-year, hard-fought battle with ovarian cancer.

Addison was fresh out of nursing school at the time but has continued, even though the pandemic, to go that extra mile for her patients.

She recalled recently a time during COVID-19 when a patient was near death and unable to have family at the bedside because of the no-visitors restrictions. Working with her manager, she was able to obtain an exception for the patient’s family.

“We don’t want anybody to pass alone,” Addison said.

Nursing is in a far different place than it was when Addison was four and used to look over her aunt’s shoulder as she studied for her nursing classes. She knew then that nursing would be her life’s work, too.

But as a result of the pandemic, “a lot of the nurses are burned out,” Addison said. “We have had a lot of nurses that have left after COVID.”

At the height of the crisis, the nurses she worked with “pulled together as a team,” she said.

“We always say teamwork makes the dream work,” Addison said. “If someone was struggling or having a difficult day, we pulled together as a team, and we did a lot to support each other.”

But as the pandemic wore on, some left for high-paying travel nurse jobs, and some said they were simply done with nursing, she said.

“For some of them, it was too much,” Addison said. “Some had health issues because they got infected with COVID, and some just felt overwhelmed working during the pandemic. It kind of took away the passion that they had for nursing.”

She said she chooses to see the good in what transpired.

“It made me appreciate things way more,” said Addison, a married mother of two.

But she does believe nursing was changed by the pandemic.

“At first, I felt like we were more involved with patients and their care. We were more proactive with the patients,” Addison said. “Now I feel people are just kind of over it. They’re just coming to work because they have a job. There is no connection with the patient.”

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April Addison, Northside

Credit: special to the AJC

April Addison, Northside

Credit: special to the AJC

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April Addison, Northside

Credit: special to the AJC

Credit: special to the AJC

Jay Connelly, Piedmont Henry Hospital

Jay Connelly was running the stroke program at Piedmont Henry Hospital in 2020 when he was named winner of an AJC’s Nurse Excellence Award.

He still runs the stroke program, but now has the added job of overseeing the hospital’s trauma program. In that role, he’s front and center in the hospital’s push to become a designated trauma center. That’s an essential move for the area since, currently, the closest trauma centers are in Macon or Atlanta.

Connelly said his job hasn’t really changed much. “You go in each day with the goal of fostering the idea that you can make a difference in other people’s lives.”

But he said COVID-19 made it a lot harder just to pop in and out of patients’ rooms to check on them, hug them, or make them laugh.

“I think we lost a little bit of the personal piece of nursing,” Connelly said. “We haven’t seen smiles for years because of mask requirements.”

For him, one of the toughest aspects of COVID-19 was that patients couldn’t have family members at their side.

“We had patients who had to go through things no one should have to go through alone,” Connelly said.

He believes he came to nursing naturally.

“I grew up watching my people serve others,” he said.

His dad spent 40 years in the Army. His mother worked in parks and recreation. And his own family is on the same path. His wife is a special education teacher, and he has one son who is an emergency room nurse, and another who is a fireman.

He sees nursing as an honor.

“It’s a privilege to hold somebody’s hand when they die. It’s a privilege to give a baby to a mother who never thought she could get pregnant,” Connelly said. “There’s such privilege in it it’s kind of hard not to enjoy doing it.”

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Jay Connelly, RN

Jay Connelly, RN

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Jay Connelly, RN


The state of nursing

Nationally, about 500,000 healthcare providers – mostly nurses – have resigned since February 2020. And though there was a comeback in overall healthcare employment last month (up 34,000), it is still down 250,000 since those early days of the pandemic. And only a small portion of those newly filled jobs are in hospitals, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on May 6.

Pat Horton, chief executive officer for the Georgia Center for Nursing Excellence, offers some insight on the various reasons for nurse resignations both here and nationally, including:

  • Fatigue, burnout, and mental well-being: Issues include the impact of the pandemic on themselves and those around them, lack of control over workload demand, inefficient electronic healthcare record tools, chaotic work environment, lack of nurses and support staff, and too many bureaucratic tasks.
  • Lack of flexibility: issues include long shifts, lack of nurses and support staff, concern for work-life balance, limited time-off, constant requests to work additional hours, and limited opportunities to rotate between the bedside and other areas.
  • Pay: More consideration is being given to nursing wages due to the increased usage of travel nurses and the pay differences. Pay issues include competitive market pay, financial incentives, and the recognition and reward structures.
  • Workplace violence: Increased workplace violence, including verbal abuse, physical aggression, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination, has caused nurses to ask an important question “Are you going to keep me safe?”
  • Leadership: Nurse leaders have a significant impact on nurse retention and recruitment. Mentorship, staffing, staff empowerment over the work environment, support for self-care, fostering a healthy work environment, recognizing and rewarding staff, streamlining processes, developing a sense of belonging, fostering individual growth and development, and keeping open communication all contribute to a professional environment that promotes retention.
  • Early retirement: A large number of nurses are at or close to retirement age and have decided to retire for a variety of reasons.

https://wallethub.com/edu/best-states-for-nurses/4041