2018 Excellence in Nursing Awards

We honor fifteen of the state's best caretakers, as nominated by their colleagues.

Nurse of the Year in a Non-Traditional Setting


Photograph by James Jones

Yvonne Heredia, PhD, MSN, BSN, RN
Manager of Case Management at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island

What made you want to be a nurse? Believe it or not, I got into nursing because I was homeless; I had been living on the streets in Olneyville, Providence while pregnant with my fourth child. When I delivered my baby early at only 1 pound, 3 ounces, it was the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurses who really inspired me. They showed me how nonjudgmental nursing is, and they helped me build my self-confidence as both a mother and a woman. That experience changed my life. After that, I met a great guy who helped me get an apartment, and once I was more settled, I started looking into the nursing program at Rhode Island College.

Do you think your past experiences have informed your career? Oh sure. For one, I had actually been a Neighborhood Health Plan member back when I was pregnant and homeless. They work closely with the community, and I have a connection to the community, given some of the social determinants that I’ve had to experience, so it just made sense for me to work in an organization that supports the same mission that I do. Second, I have six children and all six of those children were born early, so I’ve always had a desire to find out why women — and African American women, especially ­— are delivering babies so early. It’s happening even when they’re not experiencing trauma or other stressors; I still had similar outcomes when I gave birth as an established nurse as I did when I was living on the streets. So, what is it? Plus, I’m a nurse who also loves analytics. I think the two together — my history and my passion for data — is what’s driving my career. My goal is to help improve birth outcomes in Rhode Island.

What’s your favorite part about being a nurse? My analytic capability and my big-picture mindset. I like to be able to analyze data and build programs based on that data to really help change health care throughout the state. For example, at Neighborhood we use predictive modeling tools that basically tell you who is at greater risk for certain illnesses. It’s not a new concept, but it’s innovative in that RNs no longer just take care of people when they’re sick. With our advanced analytics, we can now predict that someone will eventually become ill and we can intervene. Making a difference; that’s what’s rewarding to me.

Nurse of the Year in an Academic Setting


Photograph by James Jones

Lynn P. Blanchette, PhD, RN, PHNA-BC
Associate Dean of the Rhode Island College School of Nursing

What made you want to be a nurse educator? I am the eldest of four girls, so taking care of people was something I had been doing my whole life. In high school, I was actually under a lot of pressure to be a doctor, but I never felt like medicine was right for me — I wanted to do something that involved more direct care. So, eventually I decided that I really wanted to do nursing, and Rhode Island College was the perfect fit. After going through the program, I knew that taking care of people in their homes was the right niche for me, so my first job after graduation was as a nurse with a visiting nurse agency. I loved that the focus was all about supporting a patient and teaching them how to administer their own care. I was always attracted to that education piece, but I didn’t get my master’s in nursing education until I’d been practicing for almost twenty-five years. But now I’m back teaching at Rhode Island College — so it’s really come full circle.

What’s something you always stress to your students? I really fundamentally believe what Florence Nightingale said about nursing being about the well as well as the sick. Patients need to know how to achieve wellness just as much as providers do. I always tell students that there’s almost nothing I’ve ever done as a nurse that I haven’t been able to teach a non-nurse to do for themselves or a family member. You always want to leave someone in the best situation possible; it’s our job to think about setting up an environment where the patient, family or community can thrive and meet their own needs and expectations.

Do you have any favorite student stories? I’ll tell you a recent one. We have a program for registered nurses that have associate degrees, to come and complete their bachelor’s degree, and last year there was a middle-aged gentleman in my class who always came on time and did his readings, but was quiet and sat at the back of the room. One day we were talking about motivational interviewing — a holistic nursing approach that goes beyond the idea of, “Tell the patient to quit smoking and they’ll do it” — and all of a sudden, the student smacked his desk and said, “How come nobody ever told me this before?” He went on to talk about patients of his who kept coming back over and over with the same problems, and he said it frustrated him because he had given them good medical advice but they weren’t following through. He had never really thought about the possibility that maybe they just didn’t have the resources. He came back a week later and told us all about how he had helped a recurring diabetic patient suffering from erratic blood sugar levels. The student had sat with the patient and asked him what was going on, and the floodgates just opened up. The patient had a back injury and had been using the pool for physical therapy, but when ulcers appeared, he had to stop using the pool — which meant he stopped exercising all together. So, the student did something about it: he helped his patient get waterproof dressings. You could see that the student felt so empowered. And I love that I’ve helped create a whole legion of nurses who are going to take care of people in a way that I think is important — it’s amazing.

Long Term Care Nurse of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Mariangelin “Angie” Perez, RN
Registered Nurse at Life Care Centers of America — Cherry Hill Manor

What made you want to be a long term care nurse? I’ve always been around family members that were in the health care field, so that piqued my interest. Then, in high school, I joined the health care Magnet program and that actually introduced me to working at Rhode Island Hospital as a Lifespan Youth employee. I was able to shadow staff nurses, and that’s when I knew for sure that I wanted to be a nurse, too. As for long term nursing, I liked that it provided more of a family-like dynamic. It’s more personal. I did work at a hospital during college, in med/surg and oncology, but I was always drawn to the older patients — I seemed to connect more with them and their families and I enjoy working with the elderly. I tried it out and I’ve loved it ever since.

What’s the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job? The most challenging part of my job is when you get attached to patients and they start to really decline, or they pass away. Saying goodbye is always difficult, especially when you’ve created that bond. But the most rewarding part is being able to do something to put a smile on patients’ faces and to make them happy despite their situations. A lot of patients are older and they don’t always have family around, so you kind of become their family. We’re not just passing out meds all the time, we’re there for them emotionally and spiritually. Also, sometimes I’ll get cards from family members saying: “Thank you so much for being there when I can’t; you really give me peace of mind.” It just means so much to me, and it helps balance out the hard times.

What advice would you give to new nurses? Be patient. Nursing is difficult and overwhelming at times, but it’s worth it. Also, remember to always put your patients first. Be kind and treat them the way you would want your family member, or even yourself, to be treated in that situation.

Nurse Scientist of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Mary Sullivan, PhD, RN, FAAN
Professor at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Nursing; Adjunct Professor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University — Department of Pediatrics; Research Scientist at Women and Infants Hospital

What made you want to be a nurse scientist? I wasn’t sure about nursing at first. I actually chose a baccalaureate program at Salve Regina because I knew if I didn’t like it, I could transfer to something else. But I did like it, particularly the maternal/infant side. And then I had always liked biology, and so as I got further into the program, I knew that I wanted to be a scientist as well. So, I got my master’s degree from the University of Nebraska and then I went on to teach at URI and enter their PhD program. A mentor of mine got me involved with a scientific group that was interdisciplinary, and we were all working together to understand more about developmental outcomes of premature infants. I was intrigued. Eventually, I got funding from the National Institutes of Health for my own study, and for the past twenty-five years I’ve been involved in following a cohort of infants that were all born premature at Women and Infants in the late 1980s. We tracked their long-term health and development outcomes until the age of twenty-three. There are not many studies in the U.S. that have followed infants this long, so it makes Women and Infants and the sample very special. It’s been great, fun work. Hard work, but fun work.

What is something you wish more people knew about your role? The important work that nurses do. We’re a very large part of the health care workforce — the largest, in fact — so that’s an important consideration when you’re thinking about health care. I think nurses’ roles are going to change as we get into the era of genetics and precision health, and Big Data is going to make some changes and give us insights that we don’t currently have. One of the things that is a passion of mine is making sure that we have an opportunity to talk about what nursing science is about. Nursing scientists are usually PhD prepared, and their work often involves uncovering and understanding the science that informs practice. So, nurses’ work is not just doing what they’re told. It’s actually making clinical judgements based on science to ensure better outcomes.

Nurse Executive of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Candace “Candy” Sharkey, RN, MS
CEO of Visiting Nurse Home and Hospice

What made you want to be a nurse? My very first job was working in the employee cafeteria on the food line at Rhode Island Hospital — I was the mashed potatoes girl. And, you know, I was really impressed with all of the nurses — just the professionalism they had and the difference they were making. So, I decided to go to URI for nursing and the following summer I went back to RIH to work in the pediatrics department, where I folded clothes and made sure that everything was sterile. I really enjoyed the culture and the idea that I was helping people, and I thought, “Yep, nursing is going to be the right job for me.”

Tell us more about your role as CEO at Visiting Nurse Home and Hospice. It’s the only free-standing, not-for-profit hospice agency left in the state of Rhode Island, and I actually was meant to just step in as interim CEO when the last CEO left in 2014 — I didn’t think I could do this job. But here I am. It’s been really good and interesting, but also challenging. It’s amazing when we get to do things like help a Jamaican hospice patient return to his home country to die in peace, or treat a motorcycle accident victim even though they don’t have insurance, but we don’t have a hospital backing us up financially. We’re on our own, so sometimes we have to pick our battles. And we always have to have a plan. Like for that last example, we knew we could only keep the patient on for a limited amount of time, so we taught her mother how to be a caretaker. It’s great because I have a greater reach in this role. I can make the decisions that will really make a difference. You have to be able to roll your sleeves up and say, “Okay, how are we going to fix this problem? How can we make things better?”

What would you say to someone who’s considering nursing as a career? I think you have to enjoy working with people and you have to follow your heart. If it’s the right thing for you, you’ll know it. It’s certainly not an easy job, not for the faint of heart, but it’s very rewarding.