Denise Ray, Piedmont Healthcare: Nurse Leader Award

A powerhouse with Piedmont Healthcare System, Denise Ray has been a champion of nurses most of her life.

Through her sophomore year of nursing school, Ray was in and out of the hospital recovering from a freak accident that happened when the sash on her dress caught fire by the bathroom heater. Eight-year-old Ray received second and third-degree burns on 55% of her body, and there was some doubt she would survive.

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“I think the reasons I did make it were because of all the folks that took care of me — the nurses, patient care techs and doctors,” she said. “That pretty much solidified that when I grew up I wanted to be able to give something back. I wanted to be a nurse.”

Today, as she has done through much of her career, Ray wears two nursing caps. She is chief executive officer of Piedmont Mountainside Hospital in Jasper; and she’s the chief nurse executive for Piedmont Healthcare System, which has about 9,000 nurses and treats about 3.4 million people annually at its 22 hospitals, including three inpatient rehabilitation hospitals.

Ray has worked in the clinical, operational, financial, regulatory, strategic and administrative facets of health care in her 44 years in nursing. She even opened and managed a day care center for employees’ children at the Chattanooga hospital where she had been treated for her burns and later started her nursing career.

For these reasons and more, Ray was presented with the AJC Nurse Leader Award on Tuesday afternoon, after being nominated last fall.

“She can do it all because she has done it all,” said John Brieske, Piedmont’s internal communications newsroom editor and the colleague who nominated Ray as nurse leader.

Ray has been the hospital system’s CNE since 2015. In that role, she has made good on her promise to focus on the needs of front-line nurses, Brieske said.

“Under her watch, the salaries of many of Piedmont’s nurses have increased; key patient care policies have been updated and standardized; an online staff scheduling system has been implemented; and a new charge nurse orientation program has been launched,” he said. “She has championed professional development for nurses throughout the system, promoted shared governance for nurses, standardized processes, and found novel ways to recognize and appreciate nurses.”

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One of the things Ray is most proud of is the annual nursing summit she created to bring leaders from throughout the Piedmont system together for fun, education and recognition. Attendance at the summits has grown from 300 to 1,200, she said.

The summits haven’t been held during the pandemic, but Ray said she hopes they can resume soon.

In her role as CEO of Piedmont Mountainside, Ray oversees 500 employees, 300 physicians, and a 58-bed acute care hospital with two outpatient facilities.

As if that weren’t enough, Ray also embraces doing double duty as system CNE.

“It gives me the opportunity to have influence at a different level than if I were just the CEO or CNE,” she said.

One of her initiatives as CNE was to change from having an office of nursing educators to having unit-based educators. By working clinically, the unit-based educators stay relevant and “know where the bumps in the road are,” Ray said.

Brieske said Ray never misses an opportunity to ask a nurse: “How can I make your job better?”

“What makes Denise special is who she is as a nurse. And that’s what she is at her very core -- a nurse,” he said. “She is both a leader and a servant.”

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Read more about the nurses honored at this year’s ceremony:

Shannan Browning, Piedmont Healthcare

Lauren DePietro, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital

Sarah Harper, Wellstar Cobb Hospital

Rose Horton, Emory Healthcare

Damar Lewis, Northside Hospital Duluth

Gina Papa, Clarkston Community Health Center

Deepa Patel, Wellstar Shared Services

Andrew Perea, Kaiser Permanente

Cherish Ramirez, Piedmont Healthcare

Julie Singleton, Northeast Georgia Health System


Educational background in nursing: MBA, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tenn.; BS, Nursing, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; BS, Organizational Management, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Ga.; AS, Nursing, Dalton State College, Dalton, Ga.Lean-Healthcare Certification Program, Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.

Current job title: Piedmont Healthcare chief nursing executive (the entire system) and chief executive officer of Piedmont Mountainside Hospital

Years of experience: 44 years

Family: Married to Bill Ray, who is retired. She has one daughter, Katie Duffy, who is the executive director of the System Pharmacy at Erlanger Health System, and two grandchildren, Finn Duffy and Brooks Duffy.