Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees
In a region known for world-class care, a career devoted to nursing in western Pennsylvania has never been more rewarding, challenging or packed with new opportunities. Meet Pittsburgh Magazine’s first-ever “Excellence in Nursing” honorees for 2016. Each may practice medicine in a different way, but they share one goal: to improve the quality of every life they touch.
Nursing is not what it used to be.
The days of white-uniformed women acting solely as maintainers of comfort are far in the past. Nurses of all genders fill crucial roles in guiding the direction of health care in our city, region and nation as they collaborate with medical-community peers and develop new solutions to address patient needs. They fill varied roles within and far from traditional hospital settings while continuously mastering the latest technologies. As they take on higher levels of responsibility and accountability than ever before, they may be required to accomplish more with fewer resources in evolving health care systems. And still, since 2002, nursing has been chosen as the most trusted profession in an annual Gallup poll that ranks honesty and ethics in various professions nationally.
With its first-ever “Excellence in Nursing” awards, Pittsburgh Magazine is honoring the often-unsung local heroes of the western Pennsylvania medical community. To showcase the remarkable talent and diverse skills of the city’s extensive nursing population, a panel of regional nursing leaders, educators and administrators evaluated and selected these individuals for recognition of extraordinary work within the field.
photos by laura petrilla
The panel’s task was not an easy one, thanks to the sheer volume of nurses working in the region. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pennsylvania’s number of registered nurses — 136,080 in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available — is fifth-highest among U.S. states. Nurse-anesthetists, midwives and practitioners add nearly 7,000 more people to that total.
The greater Pittsburgh area — including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties — is home to nearly one-quarter of the state’s nurses. That’s not surprising given the wide array of options available within the field. The region is home to 45 hospitals, including those operated by health care giants UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, as well as suburban hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and home health care operations.
Here, educators such as Carlow University’s Janice Nash are making sure new crops of students are prepared to face all of the challenges ahead in the field, while leaders such as Diane Hupp of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC work to recruit and retain the best possible talent. Anti-bullying expert Renee Thompson helps those working on the frontlines to navigate the pressures of high-stress environments. Advancing technology has led to new roles for nurses such as Sergey Blyakhor, who uses his background in information and technology to analyze data pertaining to patient care at Allegheny Health Network. Others, such as certified registered family nurse practitioner Darlene Ursiny, draw from their own history of battling health concerns to provide the most compassionate care possible.
All do the job they love with the goal of improving the quality of every life they touch, and for that, much recognition is deserved.
When she worked as a staff nurse, Janice Nash says she believed education was key to any patient’s positive outcome. She enjoyed teaching new nurses in her roles at the cardiology and medical surgical stepdown units at Allegheny General Hospital, then later at what was then Jefferson Regional Medical Center and Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. Even more so, she loved providing patients with the necessary knowledge to continue their care at home and ensure their health needs were met in the most comprehensive manner possible.
“I believe the most difference is made when people know how to care for themselves once they’re home and how to focus on prevention,” says Nash, 53, of South Park Township.
Nash’s dedication to guiding future front-line nurses enables her to excel as an associate professor of nursing and academic advisor at Carlow University.
“I strongly believe in the education we are able to provide for our students,” says Nash. “Students are getting the jobs they want, and those who want to stay in Pittsburgh are able to do so. We are blessed to be in a location with both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network where they are able to get clinical practice at wonderful facilities. They get experience in everything from transplants to trauma. There are people coming from all over the region to get care here.”
As a teacher, Nash helps her students “to see beyond their shifts.” She challenges them to consider the bigger picture surrounding their patients — to ask questions about their family members and their needs. She asks them to think about what each patient will need to know upon discharge and how any experience can be made better.
Knowing that nurses have more responsibility today than ever, particularly in regard to technology and accountability, Nash encourages her students to consider all factors affecting their field, including politics and public policy. Her students have gone on to enjoy successful careers at local hospitals as well as Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“We love when they stay, but we love to see them recognized outside the area as well,” she says.
Nash was involved in Carlow’s transition from a college to a university in 2004, and she helped to organize its schools into their current designations. The nursing program now falls under the College of Health and Wellness, a name chosen to appeal to a broader range of students and encourage growth in health care-related majors. Nash also chaired the committee dedicated to revamping Carlow’s nursing curriculum three years ago in an attempt to improve continuity and consistency.
Nash has done work with the university’s Prepare to Care summer program, in which high school students stay on campus, tour local hospitals and hear speakers while exploring their interest in health care careers.
She also is focused on trends in nursing to ensure students are educated to meet future needs. In anticipation of a projected shortage of operating-room nurses, Carlow offered an internship program in the summer in partnership with Magee, UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore in which students could observe operating-room nursing firsthand. Students also accompany caregivers with Operation Safety Net, a program of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and Trinity Health that provides health care for the city’s homeless population.
Joan Reale, a retired Carlow professor and Nash’s mentor, describes Nash as driven by curiosity and unafraid to tackle any topic related to the field.
“Janice is a wonderful woman,” Reale says. “She is always professional with students. She is warm, kind and knowledgeable. She is a very caring person who always demonstrates empathy when students come to her with problems.”
Sergey Blyakhor says he never expected a career in nursing to land him in a cubicle, but it’s a career he’s excited to have.
Years of hands-on nursing for Allegheny General Hospital’s telemetry/trauma unit led Blyakhor to a role on the quality lean team — a group dedicated to making the hospital more efficient while improving patient care. He says that role involved analyzing data to create effective solutions throughout hospital operations. For example, if a particular nursing unit was successful in staving off infections, he evaluated what that unit was doing and how its techniques could be used elsewhere in the hospital.
Blyakhor focused his efforts on technology, and his work led to a promotion in May, when he accepted a corporate role as a clinical informatics nurse — a nurse skilled in both health and computer sciences who helps the network scrutinize data pertaining to patient care — working in reporting and data analytics for the Allegheny Health Network.
“Information drives change,” says Blyakhor, 30, who lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, Kelsey, and daughter Tesla, 1.
“We’re evaluating the data to see where we can improve and how we can make people’s lives better.”
Blyakhor was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1993 at age 6. He began his collegiate studies as a psychology major at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He worked for UPMC as a behavioral therapist for children with autism before attending nursing school at West Penn Hospital School of Nursing; he later earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Ohio University.
When he made the choice to change careers, Blyakhor turned to someone he’s watched flourish within the field of nursing. His mother, Irina, overcame a language barrier to earn her nursing degree in her 40s and now is a nursing-home supervisor at Heritage Place in Squirrel Hill. Observing as she pursued her career instilled a deep appreciation and respect for all health care workers, her son says.
Irina Blyakhor says her son’s choice to become a nurse left her both surprised and excited.
“When my son was young, he always enjoyed playing video games and working with computers. As he got older, I saw that working with people was something he was really taking to,” she says. “I told him to go into nursing if it was something that would make him happy and that he could develop a passion for. Now that he has entered health informatics, he has combined the best of the worlds and is really happy.”
His mother says she is “unbelievably proud” of her son’s success in the nursing field.
“It’s such difficult and challenging work but is incredibly important for the health of our communities,” she says.
His boss, Jeannine Konzier, AHN director of clinical informatics analytics, says Blyakhor is much more than a clinician.
“He’s a patient advocate in every sense of the word,” she says. “It’s a privilege to work with him. He is extremely loyal and trustworthy — the epitome of nursing care. He knows the science behind nursing and always puts the patient first.”
Growing up in Bellevue, Darlene Ursiny spent only 30 days among her peers in her first-grade classroom due to her poor health. The following year, she attended second-grade classes just 75 times.
In the 1970s, the medical community lacked much of its current knowledge about treating the type of chronic asthma and allergies that kept Ursiny sick at home or in a hospital throughout her youth. Ursiny waited and wondered when doctors would be successful at keeping her asthma attacks at bay. She also watched the skilled nurses as they cared for her and worked to ensure she felt comfortable. When it came time to choose a career, the memory of their kindness compelled Ursiny to pursue a similar path.
“A lot of patients with respiratory problems come to me for breathing treatments,” says Ursiny, 47, who lives in Braddock Hills with her husband, Michael, and children, Christine, 12, and Erik, 10. “I feel compassion for them, and I can understand what they’re going through. Once I get to know them, I can tell them about my own experience and ask, ‘Do you ever feel like this?’ Today, there are many more tools for diagnosing problems and treating them.”
Doctors eventually determined she had allergies to milk and shellfish as well as seasonal allergies and asthma, from which she still suffers. Helping others to understand their own breathing problems remains her priority.
Ursiny earned nursing degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University and now works as a certified registered family nurse practitioner at Health Associates East in Penn Hills. Known to devote her free time to patients and rearrange her schedule to accommodate as many of them as possible, Ursiny sees about 60 people a week. Her lunch breaks frequently are spent returning patient phone calls or refilling prescriptions. While some of them have respiratory concerns, her patients also include people seeking treatment for hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and a slew of other chronic diseases.
Ursiny also volunteers at Sheep Inc. Health Care Center in Monroeville and the Free Clinic at Braddock. She teaches second-year students at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine Seton Hill branch during her free weekends.
“Darlene is a compassionate and very talented nurse practitioner who strives to meticulously provide the utmost comprehensive care,” says Dr. Melissa Horner, a physician with whom Ursiny works at Health Associates East. “Our patients and myself are very grateful for her being part of our team.”
Ursiny’s role as caregiver extended into her personal life when her father, Robert Frazier, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She and her family helped to care for him until his death in 2014. Ursiny says the example that he and her mother, Dolores, set was instrumental in shaping her work ethic.
“My parents taught me to work hard, give back to the community and not take anything for granted,” Ursiny says. “It just takes juggling and balance.”
While speaking at a recent conference in Dubai, Renee Thompson received an email about the very subject she was there to address.
The gist of the message was one she had read many times before, though the sender was new. The writer was a member of the nursing community who felt other nurses were bullying her.
“Somebody reaches out to ask for help” almost daily, says Thompson, 51, a speaker, author, consultant and founder of Pittsburgh-based RTConnections, dedicated to addressing workplace bullying and improving nursing professional development. “I got to the point where I could no longer sit back and say, ‘This is just how it is [in nursing].’”
Acclaimed by her peers for her boundless energy and enthusiasm, Thompson offers keynote presentations, seminars and consulting services to hospitals, academic institutions and professional nursing organizations around the world.
She started working in the field 26 years ago after earning an associate degree from Community College of Allegheny County, followed by bachelor’s, master’s and Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees from the University of Pittsburgh.
Thompson worked as a bedside and home-care nurse — and in managed care, quality management and nursing leadership — before taking a position in professional development at UPMC. That job required her to speak frequently to large audiences of nurses.
“I really felt when I was speaking to a group of nurses that I was in the zone,” she says. “I could tell I was making a positive impact.”
Thompson says she loved that role so much that she quit her job and went into business for herself. She took what she calls a “leap of faith” five years ago, and she now is so successful that her calendar is consistently filled with engagements.
“I love unpredictability,” says Thompson, who also continues to work on the front lines in the medical/surgical observation unit at St. Clair Hospital. “Every day is different, and I get to meet the most amazing people in the world.”
Lynn George, dean of the College of Health and Wellness at Carlow University and a member of the Pittsburgh Magazine Excellence in Nursing judging panel, met Thompson while she was working at UPMC and leading the first Academic Service Partnership Council in Pittsburgh.
“She is an inspiration,” George says. “She is a very positive force for nursing,” due to her focus on improving clinical and professional competence, eliminating nurse-to-nurse bullying, promoting healthy workplaces and nurturing a culture of respect.
Joanne Turka, an advanced clinical education specialist at UPMC and director of education for RTConnections, calls Thompson the “ultimate connector.”
“She has developed such a great network that she shares shamelessly,” Turka says.
The issue of nurses bullying more vulnerable colleagues became Thompson’s focus when she realized the biggest factor contributing to its prevalence was the lack of conversation surrounding it. While its existence likely is surprising to those outside the field, she says it’s become an unfortunate reality. She points to results of a 2014 Kaplan survey in which nearly 50 percent of recent nursing school graduates expressed concern about workplace bullying as well as a 2012 article in American Nurse Today — the official journal of the American Nurses Association — advising nurses on how to “Break the Bullying Cycle.”
A high-stress environment, the nature of work that at times ranges from frustrating to heartbreaking, and increased demands on nurses all can contribute to tension, which many nurses cope with by lashing out at each other, Thompson says. This can lead to declining patient outcomes as well as rapid turnover in the industry, she says. She teaches simple strategies to eliminate the behavior.
“We are hemorrhaging really great nurses,” Thompson says. “We can’t afford to lose one good nurse.”
The president of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC says he knows he needs to be at his best when he meets with Diane Hupp.
“I prepare very hard for my meetings with Diane,” says Christopher Gessner. “I know she’s going to be prepared, and that makes you feel obligated to be just as prepared. She elevates the performance of everyone at Children’s Hospital.”
Hupp, chief nursing officer and vice president of operations and patient care services at Children’s, oversees most hospital clinical and operational departments, as well as its facilities, maintenance and environmental services, food and nutritional services, public safety, patient safety, quality and accreditation, parking and hospitality. With so many areas to supervise, Hupp says she has no “typical day.”
“No matter how difficult the challenge, you think about the impact you’re making on patients’ lives,” says Hupp, 52, of South Fayette Township. “Once you realize the difference you can make, you feel a sense of pride.”
Hupp started her career nearly 30 years ago at Children’s as a volunteer and later a child-care assistant while she attended nursing school at Duquesne. Yet a career in nursing was not always the goal for the former business major.
“Midway through my sophomore year, I woke up feeling as if I had a calling,” Hupp says. “I was being told I needed to be a nurse. I called my parents and said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I want to change my major.’”
Trusting that feeling has led to an accomplished and full career for Hupp. At Children’s, she has served as a staff nurse, assistant head nurse manager, director of medical services and patient service manager on various inpatient units. She also has been the nursing director of perioperative and surgery centers/services and the executive director of nursing and surgical services.
Through it all, she’s held true to her belief in nursing being both an art and a science.
“There is a body of science you have to be knowledgeable about, and you can learn that,” she says. “I believe what makes a great nurse is truly the art of nursing — kindness, compassion, caring. Good nurses never forget that. We are here to provide a service, and there is no greater time when families need us.”
Hupp dedicates herself to giving each of the hospital’s 1,400 nurses the tools they need to succeed. She stays engaged with nurses in all departments by speaking to all new employees about her key areas of concern — safety, service and speaking up — as well as attending staff meetings and holding regular open forums.
“My philosophy of leadership is rooted in empowering the frontline staff in decision-making,” she says.
Hupp says she is particularly proud of the hospital’s “seamless move” in 2009 from its former location in Oakland to its current campus in Lawrenceville, as well as its prestigious Magnet designation, earned in 2012 from the American Nurses’ Credentialing Center for quality of patient care and nursing excellence.
Her current goal is for 90 percent of the hospital nursing staff to have bachelor’s degrees by 2020, which she intends to accomplish through recruiting efforts, scholarships and tuition reimbursement incentives. Her aim is 10 percent higher than the recommendation of The Institute of Medicine, the organization that sets standards and policies for the industry.
Her tendency to take such proactive measures is what sets her apart, Gessner says.
“She is the epitome of a professional,” he says. “She has a strong set of values and works incredibly hard to give back to the profession. She is a great teacher and role model.”
These nurses also have been acknowledged by Pittsburgh Magazine’s Excellence in Nursing panel for their contributions to the field in 2016.
- Heather Ambrose is director of nursing at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Jacqueline Collavo is director of nursing operations at West Penn Hospital, Allegheny Health Network.
- Amber Egyud is vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Forbes Hospital, Allegheny Health Network.
- Kathleen Harley is vice president and chief nursing officer, surgical and procedural services, for Heritage Valley Health System.
- Dawndra Jones is chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services at UPMC McKeesport.
- Marianne McConnell is chief nursing information officer at UPMC.
- Joy M. Peters is vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Jefferson Hospital, Allegheny Health Network.
- Kristen Straka is senior director of ambulatory, Heart Institute and rehabilitation services at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Shelley Watters is director of cultural excellence at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.
- Anthony Battaglia is president of Pocket Nurse Enterprises, Inc.
Advanced Practice Nurse
- Jamie Bloch is a certified registered nurse practitioner in the cardiac catheterization lab at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Jennifer Diserio is a certified registered nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC/Children’s South.
- Loretta Filitske is a certified registered nurse practitioner at Allegheny General Hospital.
- Mary Kish is a neonatal nurse practitioner at Jefferson Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and Excela Westmoreland Hospital.
- Yolanda C. Lang is a certified registered nurse practitioner at UPMC.
- Jennifer Troutman is a neonatal nurse practitioner in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Marne Bilanich is a domiciliary nurse manager with VA Butler Healthcare.
- Stacey Cote is a unit director of abdominal transplant at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Sharon Johnson is a clinical supervisor at St. Clair Hospital Family Birth Center.
- Jodi Licata is a programmatic nurse specialist in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
- Cynthia Shaffer is a clinician at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.
- Cecelia A. Peterson is a flight nurse with LifeFlight at Allegheny General Hospital.
- Jessica Weale is a professional staff nurse at UPMC East.
- Angela Balistrieri is director of UPMC Mercy Hospital School of Nursing.
- Alison Colbert is an associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs for the Duquesne University School of Nursing.
- Ebony Edwards is assistant professor of nursing at the Allegheny campus of Community College of Allegheny County.
- Jessica Huber is an instructor in undergraduate nursing and course coordinator of nursing care of children in the College of Health and Wellness at Carlow University.
- Judith Kaufmann is an associate professor of nursing at Robert Morris University.
- Margaret Quinn Rosenzweig is a professor in the department of acute and tertiary care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing.
- Ann Spence is an assistant professor of nursing in the College of Health and Wellness at Carlow University.
- Jennifer J. Wasco is the practice experience coordinator for the Chatham University nursing programs and adjunct faculty.
Meet our Judges
Master of Science in Nursing, RN, Nurse Executive Advanced-Board Certified
Vice President of Patient Care and Chief Nursing Officer, Allegheny General Hospital
Ph.D., RN, Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing
Dean & Distinguished Service Professor of Nursing, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing
Ph.D., RN, Certified Nurse Educator
Dean of College of Health and Wellness, Carlow University
Master of Science in Nursing, RN
Vice President of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer, Heritage Valley Health System
Executive Director, UPMC Schools of Nursing
Master of Science in Nursing, RN
Chief Nursing Executive UPMC, Center for Nursing Excellence
Master of Education, Master of Business Administration, RN
Chief Nursing Officer and Administrative Vice President, St. Clair Hospital
Master of Arts in Health Care Ethics, Master of Nursing Education, Master of Business Administration, RN
Dean of Nursing, Community College of Allegheny County
Doctor of Nursing Practice, Master of Science in Administration, RN
Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Patient Care Services, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside