Rhode Island’s Top Nurses
Thirteen of the state's finest nurses are celebrated in this annual feature, Excellence in Nursing.
Nurse Practitioner of the Year
Kathleen “Kathy” Parker, MSN, APRN
Owner and President of A to Z Primary Care; Per Diem at CareWell Urgent Care, Kent Hospital Emergency Room and West View Nursing and Rehabilitation
How did you end up with your own practice?
One night I did a rotation in trauma, and after twenty years of nursing, I decided to look into becoming a trauma nurse specialist. But then URI told me that those positions were going by the wayside and suggested I try primary care as a nurse practitioner instead. I remember thinking, “How does that work? Nurses work with illness, not wellness!” It was a big turnaround for me, but I was so glad I did it because it opened the door for me to eventually open my own practice, A to Z Primary Care, which was also one of the first independent nurse practitioner offices in Rhode Island. Now, as a family practitioner, I can see people through their life cycle. I can diagnose, treat, prescribe… I can do it all.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Seeing my patients and helping them get through what they need to get through. I partner with them. You can’t tell someone what to do because they’re not going to do it. Instead you ask, “What do you want to do first? One magic pill is not going to fix this, so tell me where you want to start because I need your help.” I’ve been in nursing for many years and I like caring for people, but I like people caring for themselves better. I like people staying healthy. The only thing you have, that’s a gift, is your health.
How has the role of a nurse practitioner changed over the years?
Nurse practitioners have come a long way! For one we’re considered advanced practice, which means we have the power to diagnose and treat patients without the supervision of an attending physician. Now it’s more of a team effort, we collaborate. But we’re not doctors. I have patients who will say, “Thank you Dr. Parker,” and I’ll laugh and say, “You can’t call me that!” Medical provider is the new terminology. We also have great representation in the government and we’ve made a big difference in the healthcare world through organizations like the Nurse Practitioner Association of Rhode Island, which I’m an active member of. I’m not sure how it’s all going to end up with everything that’s going on with the new health policies… but I know we’re going to be there.
Nurse of the Year in an Academic Setting
Susan Sienkiewicz, MA, RN
Professor, Level II Nursing, CCRI
What made you want to teach nursing?
I’m fortunate to have had quite a few amazing role models in my life. My initial desire to be a nurse naturally evolved from my older sister being a nurse — I looked up to her. Then, I was in the hospital in sixth grade, and I remember exactly what this one nurse looked like and how safe she made me feel. I remember thinking, “I want to be that for someone else.” As for teaching, I didn’t figure that out until I was a nursing student. I was observing my instructors, who were incredible, one day, and I just thought, “Gee, I want to do that too!”
Do you have any funny teaching moments that you can share?
Once a student of mine had to give medication down an NG tube. We were talking through the process beforehand and I said, “Remember, you have to check the placement of the tube first, so be sure to listen to the patient’s abdomen.” We get to the patient’s bedside and my student has the medication, he has the syringe and he’s ready to give the medication, but then he just puts his ear down directly on her belly. I stared for a second and then said, “…You can use your stethoscope, you know,” and then the patient chimed in, “That would probably help!” There are a lot of stories like that.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Easy: Pinning and graduation. It never gets old. Working at the community college, I think what is so unique about our student population is that so many of them are single parents, working full time, there for their second careers, etc. When I was in school, the only thing I had to worry about was my studies. I don’t know if I could have done what they do. Watching them graduate after having overcome all of these hurdles and knowing that I had a small part in their accomplishment is really humbling.
Nurse Researcher of the Year
Denise Luppe, RN, OCN, CCRP
Oncology Research Nurse Supervisor, Lifespan Cancer Institute (Rhode Island Hospital, the Miriam Hospital, Newport Hospital, East Greenwich Cancer Center)
What drove you towards the research aspect of nursing?
I was initially an inpatient oncology nurse for three years at Rhode Island Hospital, and it was there that I realized I was just seeing a snapshot of patients’ lives. I love learning and I wanted to know more about why I was giving the chemo that I was giving. I also wanted to see the patients from diagnosis all the way through to survivorship; I wanted to be more involved in developing those close relationships through the entire period of their treatment, not just the inpatient part. Research was a great place to explore that opportunity. You get into the pathology and the staging and what makes this person’s cancer different from another person’s cancer.
Tell me more about the type of research that you do.
A lot of what we’re doing now is with genomics, which has really changed cancer care. We look at each patient’s tumor, and when we find a genomic alteration, it’s exciting because we can match each patient to a targeted therapy. We’ve partnered with organizations like the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brown University to create a robust portfolio of different clinical trials, and now we can empower patients to be active participants in their care by giving them multiple options that often involve fewer side effects. The care is more personalized, which leads to better patient outcomes, improved quality of life and lots of hope for the future.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Of course I love looking at a scan and seeing a complete response, but I also enjoy the patient interaction. I get to sit with them and talk not about their cancer, but their life. We talk about their families, their hobbies and what they’re planning for the future. I like seeing that the cancer isn’t just consuming their life — it’s just a small part of it.
Do you have any memorable patients? I saw my first research patient, a jazz musician, through two different cancer treatments in the past fifteen years. When he first came in, they had told him he would never sing again, but now he’s eighty years old and still performing. He dedicated Tony Bennett’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow” to me immediately following his first yearlong treatment and he still plays it every time I see him perform. It’s a wonderful reminder of how important oncology nursing is.
Nurse Executive of the Year
Margaret L. Clifton, MS, RN-BC, CLNC
Director of the RI Board of Nurse Registration and Nursing Education, Rhode Island Department of Health
How did you get into nursing?
When I was growing up, a girl could be one of three things: a nurse, a teacher or a secretary. I didn’t want to be a teacher or a secretary, and my twin sister wanted to be a nurse, so I said, “Okay I’ll go to nursing school with you.” Three months into the program she dropped out and I kept going. It was probably the best decision I ever made.
Tell me more about what you do. It’s definitely a different side of nursing.
After nursing students graduate and take the state board’s national NCLEX exam, we’re the ones that review the results and determine if they can be licensed. Once all of the results come in, I send them out to each of Rhode Island’s schools of nursing so they know how well their students have done. We also monitor the schools’ pass rate, and if it drops to less than 80 percent, they have to review and fix the program. We also deal with nurses that may have gotten in a little bit of trouble. We review complaints and if the nurse is at fault, we discipline them. We get them the help that they need and then afterwards it’s nice to see them get their license back and continue.
How has your previous experiences as a nurse prepared you for this role?
I’ve had all different jobs and I loved each one; I was a staff nurse, an IV nurse, a private duty nurse, a vice president for nursing, a department chair… And I think when you get into a higher level of leadership it pays to have those experiences. I always try and get into the headspace of a nurse that I’m disciplining: to think of how she perceives her job, understand how she went wrong and then figure out how we can help her. So you need to be compassionate. Even though I’m not dealing directly with sick patients anymore, I’m still dealing with people who need my help.
Clinical Practical Nurse of the Year
Karen Kelley, BA, RN
Staff Nurse, Radiation Oncology, Lifespan Cancer Institute
Which qualities do you think make for a good nurse?
You have to be able to deal with the public. While there are many great days, there are also days when you’ve just had it and you still have to be professional and work with others. It helps to be a people person because the families are always there too, and you get to know them on a personal level as well. And you have to have compassion. That’s huge. You have to be able to listen to the patients and be prepared to not give them definitive answers because a lot of times you don’t have any. Be a listening ear, be sympathetic and be there for them.
How do you deal with the more challenging parts of your job?
I’ve had a lot of patients that have gone on and lived a long and healthy life, but then there are always those that you get attached to and they pass away. It’s just devastating because you’ve done so much to help them through it, but then things just don’t go their way. But I hope they appreciate the care we’ve given them in the end — I wouldn’t trade getting to know them for the world. That contact — getting to know them and their families during hours and hours of radiation treatments — that’s the best part of my job. I’ve loved the different areas that I’ve worked in throughout my forty-one years as a nurse, but management was never my thing. I’ve always wanted to stay at the patient’s bedside.
What would you say to someone who’s considering a career in nursing?
It’s a great job where you learn something new every day. It’s an ongoing learning process, and if you don’t learn something new, then you probably haven’t spent enough time at work that day. It’s also a great career if you want to have a family because of the flexibility. And you always work as part of a team. A lot of times you form some amazing, lifelong friendships with wonderful people, whether they be fellow staff members or even patients.
Community Health/Home Health Nurse of the Year
Carol A. Mello, MSN, RN
Hospital in Home Staff Nurse, Providence VA Medical Center
Do you have any interesting stories you can share?
I had always told new employers that if I went to a home and there was a snake, I couldn’t stay. And then I did a visit one time and the patient had a pet boa. It was really unnerving, but I stayed. In homecare you never know what you’re walking into, and it really forced me to think about who I was a person at the same time as I had to do something professional.
Why did you decide to pursue homecare?
As nurses, we all think we can cure everybody and fix the world, but the thing that I like about community health nursing, and homecare in particular, is that you can focus on one individual at a time. You’re in the patient’s home where they are surrounded by their own things and their loved ones. They’re more comfortable and they’re happier. Also, a lot of distractions that you’d find in the hospital are removed, so you can be more attentive. When you’re in a home with a person, you’re it. There’s a lot of autonomy and it’s actually very fulfilling as a nurse.
How do you deal with the more challenging aspects of your job? We walk into a lot of social situations and there are times when you think, “Okay, what’s going on here?” But it’s not our place to insert ourselves into a family or take on their issues. It’s our job to make sure that their care can be carried out so that the individual can remain where they are if that’s the best thing — if that’s where they are happy and safe. And sometimes you have to actually say out loud to the patient, “What is it exactly that you want to have happen?” because you’re hearing about what all these other people want. So advocating for them is a big piece; the patient is always the focus.
What would you say to someone who’s considering a career in nursing?
It’s evolved so much since I first started. One of my great nieces first enrolled in college as a nursing major, but when I asked her how it was going she said she had changed her mind because she didn’t want to work in a hospital. I said, “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a nurse!” That’s the thrilling part: You can work in many environments and use talents and skills and knowledge in different ways. And no matter which role or specialty you choose, they’re all incredibly important. If they can explore and find their niche, what absolutely makes them feel happy, they will absolutely thrive and be better nurses for it.
Long-Term Care Nurse of the Year
Ingrid Johnson, LPN
Charge Nurse, Cedar Crest Nursing Centre
What drove you towards long-term care?
I realized early on that, in short-term care, the patients are going in and out, and you often don’t get to know them as well. I like that in long-term care you can get close to the residents. It’s one of those careers where you’re at home and all of a sudden you’re thinking, “Oh I wonder how Mrs. so and so is doing?” I sew and I’ll find myself using extra fabric to make residents things like eyeglass holders or something small that I know will make their day. Also, nowadays you’re not only caring for the resident but for their families. At first they’re apprehensive, like, “Are you going to take good care of my father?” But once you get to know them and gain their trust, they and the patients become like your own family. I love that.
How has long-term care evolved?
When I first got into nursing, assisted livings didn’t exist, and you actually had a whole unit of just residents that weren’t quite well enough to go home yet they only really needed a little bit of help. But now the long-term residents that we get and care for are sicker, less stable and need more medical attention. A lot of people think, “Oh you’re working in a nursing home, you’re just helping these little old ladies that need just a small amount of care and supervision.” But it’s definitely advanced. There’s more responsibility in a way, and it requires more skills and knowledge.
Do you have any favorite memories from your time as a long-term care nurse?
There have been quite a few amazing moments over the years, including once when I helped one of our more dependent residents get all dressed up and attend a family wedding, but one of my most memorable moments was actually a time when I got to send a patient home. She was probably with us for two to three years, and she thought she would spend the rest of her life there. But we were able to keep her stable and she improved enough to the point where she was able to leave us. I had the privilege of accompanying her that day and just seeing her return to the home she loved, a place she never thought she’d see again, was amazing.
Clinical Nurse Specialist of the Year
Karen Schaefer, MSN, APRN, AGCNS-BC
Advanced Practice Manager / Stroke Program Manager, the Miriam Hospital
How did you get into nursing?
My grandfather was a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore and several of my relatives were nurses, so I always knew I wanted to follow their lead and do something in the medical field. I went to school to see if I really wanted to go through with it and it was just absolutely the right fit. I loved it.
Tell me about your work with improving the Miriam Hospital’s code stroke response times.
When someone has a stroke in the community, they call 911, the ambulance brings them to the emergency room and diagnosis and treatment begins immediately. But in the hospital, there are a number of patients that have strokes while they’re admitted, and they get missed initially because you think that it’s an effect of the medication that they’re on, or that it has something to do with the illness or injury that brought them there in the first place. Timing is key to code stroke recovery, so I knew I wanted to improve our in-house response and treatment times. We implemented an education program throughout the hospital where I taught everyone, from transport to staff nurses, the symptoms of a stroke, and then we took how you do code strokes in the ER and internalized it. For example, getting a code stroke patient to CT as soon as possible is vital because it helps determine diagnosis and treatment. We’ve since reduced our response times by 53 percent!
What’s the best part of your job?
My favorite part is knowing that I can make a difference with both the nurses and the patients. And to actually witness it — I didn’t know that I had made such an impact at first. Someone asked me to pull data together to see how well we were doing, and when I did, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing!” I feel so fortunate with my job to work with such a great group of people. Knowing that we can come together and touch the lives of a patient from the field all the way to when they are discharged is so rewarding.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist of the Year
Paul Carvalho, CRNA
Rhode Island Hospital, Lifespan Physician Group
Nurse of the Year in an Academic Setting
Joanne Costello, BSN, MPH, MN, PhD
Rhode Island College School of Nursing
Clinical Practice Nurse of the Year
Joanne Deblois, RN
The Miriam Hospital