Excellence in Nursing: Meet this Year’s Honorees
Pittsburgh Magazine honors these 7 health care leaders, chosen by our panel of distinguished judges in the field.
Click on the individual’s name or scroll down to view the entire list.
Professor, Vice Chair for Research
Health & Community Systems
University of Pittsburgh
If you had the earliest possible signs of an incurable and unpreventable disease, would you want to know?
The question is the driving force behind the work of Jennifer Lingler, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing professor and vice chair for Research, Health & Community Systems. Lingler, of Mt. Lebanon, is fascinated with the ethical and interpersonal implications of what it means to tell someone, “You have Alzheimer’s changes in your brain.”
Lingler’s interest in nursing began during a summer in her youth working at a nursing home where she was struck by how much variability comes with the aging process.
“It’s not like child development where there are these predictable stages,” she says. “Once you get beyond that age of 70 and especially past 80, one person’s trajectory can be very different from another person’s trajectory. I had this inherent fascination with why is it some people age with such grace and productivity and other people experience either ongoing medical issues or downright experiences of suffering.”
As she advanced through her education, Lingler began focusing on the ethical issues associated with the care of someone rendered vulnerable by cognitive deficits. Over the course of her career, she worked on the geriactic psychiatric unit at University Hospitals Cleveland, where she saw people dealing with the most difficult latter stages of Alzheimer’s, before coming to the Memory Disorders Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, the clinical arm of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, where she saw people with the earliest signs.
Pitt is home to innovative technology allowing for the detection of Alzheimer’s changes in the brain even before a person exhibits symptoms. Such advances have caused researchers to question the implications of testing for the disease in studies and revealing results to participants. Some argue it can be damaging to a person’s mental or emotional state. Others claim in the absence of a cure or method of prevention, there is no reason to share the results.
Lingler, however, believes the information belongs to the people who are experiencing changes in their brains and the decision whether to learn the results or not should lie with them. Over the last five years, she’s been conducting a randomized controlled trial in which participants, after counseling, are given the opportunity to make such a decision then monitored for a year afterward to see how the choice impacted their lives.
Protocols stemming from Lingler’s work have been adopted in the medical community. She’s found even the language used when delivering an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can impact the patient. For instance, most doctors will say a scan is “positive,” a word usually denoting something good. To be less ambiguous, Lingler suggests instead saying the scan showed a buildup of the plaque associated with Alzheimer’s, as most things that build up — debt, stress — are undesirable.
While her work is shifting the way the world thinks about Alzheimer’s disease, Lingler is most excited about helping advance the field even further by mentoring the future generation of researchers.“Whatever area people are in, there is a unique and important contribution for nursing to make,” she says.
“There is a piece of that that can be advanced in a unique way by a nursing lens. Helping people find that and pursue that is most gratifying for me. That’s the work that’s going to have the most wide-reaching impact.”
Megan Rhoades always lets her staff know it’s OK to cry.
The nursing manager for the oncology unit at St. Clair Hospital knows the connection they create with patients can lead to intensely emotional moments.“If you don’t show your emotions, you’re not truly in it for the right reasons,” says Rhoades. “It’s OK to hug [the families] and cry with them because I think that shows that you truly do care and that patient did matter.”
Rhoades, a graduate of Waynesburg University, has been with St. Clair for 11 years. She started as an intern on the telemetry unit then became a patient care assistant until she graduated and took a job on the medical surgical unit. She joined the float pool, which allowed her to work on many different units, and always felt a special connection to oncology. She liked the staff, who always were welcoming and ready to teach her something new, and she appreciated the opportunity to foster relationships with patients over the course of their treatments.
Rhoades was working as a patient placement manager when a job opened on the oncology unit. She knew it was where she was meant to be.In her current role, Rhoades also serves as the community coordinator, overseeing the hospital’s several support groups for cancer patients and their caretakers, as well as outreach programs and free screenings.
The lifelong Washington resident says beyond caring for patients, the culture of the community hospital makes coming to work at St. Clair every day a joy.“Everyone has a smile on their face,” she says of her coworkers.
“Even when it’s crazy busy and you know everybody’s drowning, you can’t tell that because everybody is like, ‘What can I do to help you out?’ Meanwhile, I know they need help themselves, but they’re willing to help you out.”
Catherine Grant’s patients are terrified she’s going to retire.
They need not fear, as the owner of Associates in Family Health Care, a small health center in Slickville, Westmoreland County (population around 300), has no plans to do so given how much she loves her job. But the people she cares for know without her, their access to healthcare would become drastically limited.
“I asked a couple of them, ‘What would you do if I did retire?’ They didn’t know where they would go or who they would see,” says Grant.Slickville is Grant’s hometown and located 15 miles north of Greensburg, the next closest place most of her patients travel to for care.
The lack of adequate healthcare inspired Grant to study the area as part of her thesis when earning her nurse practitioner certification at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. She researched whether the community would be receptive to having a nurse practitioner as the primary care provider. It was, and in 1991, Grant opened her health center.
“We’re truly part of the community,” says Grant. “We provide a lot of services, from one-day-old infants to the oldest patient I have, who is 94.
”Grant always knew she wanted to give back to the community she grew up in, where many residents are farmers or employed outside of the area as there are not many local businesses. She also knew most people didn’t want to have to leave the community to get healthcare or simply couldn’t if they didn’t have reliable transportation.Her center offers a range of services including preventative care, diagnostics and programs aimed at smoking cessation and prediabetes education.
Grant also partners with the Blackburn Center in Greensburg, a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of domestic and sexual violence, by providing space where victims can come to receive free help and counseling.
Under Pennsylvania law, nurse practitioners must operate under an agreement with physicians in order to practice. Grant, who has collaborated with Dr. Kevin Wong since opening her center, supports legislation currently under review in the House of Representatives that would permit full practice authority for nurse practitioners based on her belief that they are able to offer a holistic approach to care, treating both the patient and the whole family, while also being able to help the patient with things such as navigating insurance to finding the best possible options for medications and treatments.
The most rewarding aspect of her work, Grant says, is knowing she’s helping improve patients’ quality of life, particularly when it comes to preventative care.“I want to be on top of it before they get sick, before it’s gone undiagnosed and they have to suffer,” she says.
“I just think it’s a challenge. I just love it.”
Grant, who also teaches at Pitt School of Nursing, lives 2.5 miles away from her office, making it easy for her to meet patients during off-hours, which she is known to do if it’s easier for them. She’s always happy to help a member of the community where she has made her life’s work.“It’s like we’re all growing up together and we’re all growing old together,” she says. “It’s just very nice.”
Dawndra Jones’ nearly three decades with UPMC have included an array of accolades for everything from her leadership skills to her mentoring efforts. But to Jones, chief nursing officer of both UPMC McKeesport and East hospitals, the real reward is in knowing she’s influencing future generations of nurse leaders.
“I feel like the good Lord put me here on this earth to help other people shine, be it in their health or in their career in healthcare,” says Jones of Plum.
Jones first knew she wanted to become a nurse from watching her late mother, Jackie McGee, a nursing assistant of more than 40 years. Jones started as a staff nurse at UPMC Shadyside, then climbed the ranks as she earned her master’s, nurse executive advance certification and doctorate, working in nearly every service area within the health system along the way.
She was named CNO at McKeesport five years ago and began focusing on population health and healthcare disparities in the community. In 2018, as healthcare leaders recognized the need for enhanced addiction medical services due to the growing opioid epidemic, UPMC McKeesport opened Allegheny County’s only hospital-based detox and in-patient rehabilitation unit.
“There’s this whole opioid epidemic that’s happening across our nation. You hear about it every day and everyone is touched by this. It has no color, no socioeconomic level. Addiction impacts everyone,” says Jones, adding alcohol addiction also accounts for than half of the cases they see.Jones officially became CNO of UPMC East in Monroeville early in 2019 and now oversees quality of patient care at both hospitals.
“I’m proud of the excellent quality of care that both of these hospitals provide,” she says. “When I hear the wonderful stories from patients that come back and tell us about their awesome experiences while we helped them get to a state of wellness, those are the accomplishments I’m just so elated about.”
Jones is president of Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action, the local chapter of the National Black Nurses Association. Within the organization, she launched the Future Nurses Academy, a mentorship program for nursing students, in 2018. She’s also proud to claim last year’s Excellence in Nursing Emerging Leader honoree Alison Davis as one of her mentees.
Helping others reach their goals is the true source of her inner fulfillment, Jones says.
“My goal is that my story helps somebody else and lets them know they can achieve it, too,” she says. “Being a person of color, coming from a single-parent household, [having] lived in poverty as a child, and really having been able to work through that and not let that define me means a lot to me. I want to make sure that I am able to always give back to somebody else.”
Krista Tharan knows one of the most effective ways to treat any illness is by improving patient knowledge and empowering the patient.
“When patients have control over the decisions they get to make and they’re informed decisions and they’re educated on their diseases, it makes a huge difference,” says the manager of Population Health at Heritage Valley Health System.
Tharan, of Mars, who has been in her role for a year, has experience in trauma care and previously worked in Heritage Valley’s hospitalist program as a CRNP. She has always been interested in health promotion, prevention and patient education. She currently manages a range of employees who work with up to five primary care physician offices.
They work primarily with rising-risk, high-risk and frequent readmission patients to provide them with the resources and education they need to properly care for themselves at home and avoid a return to the hospital. The people they care for live mostly in Allegheny and Beaver counties and are dealing with a wide range of medical issues, everything from congestive heart failure to dementia to uncontrolled diabetes.
Tharan’s team has found health literacy to be one of the driving factors of hospital readmission. Practice-based care managers are trained to ensure patients understand exactly what is being said to them. They avoid speaking at the medical level and review each medication to make sure the patient fully understands its function and importance.
“I feel like so many different avenues in healthcare have failed our patients because they don’t break it down to that level,” says Tharan. “They don’t take into consideration that not everybody has the same knowledge base as us.”
Sometimes, it can be as simple as explaining why weighing yourself matters. Tharan has seen congestive heart failure patients avoid the scale because they didn’t want to see the number staring back at them. But as soon as they understand the role weight plays in their disease, they’re happy to jump on.
“We’ve had several patients who don’t have to go back to the hospital because now they understand their disease and they can take control of their lives and they can have a life again,” says Tharan. “They understand why they need to take their medications and why they need to weigh themselves and why they need to eat the way they need to eat.”
Stories like that are why Tharan does the work she does. She also loves coaching her team and keeps her phone nearby at all times just in case they need her.“I try to assist them as much as possible because really, it all comes down to the patient,” she says.
Chelsey Caputo’s career began with a life-altering diagnosis.
At age 19, the college sophomore learned she had Crohn’s disease, or inflammatory bowel disease. What followed were years spent in and out of the hospital trying new medications and staving off operations. But the experience also resulted in Caputo finding her calling: nursing.
“Most of what I learned about my disease and most of what I learned about coping was from the nurses,” says Caputo, of Scott, now an RN working in UPMC Presbyterian’s trauma ICU.
“Younger nurses, older nurses, newer nurses, seasoned nurses, funny, tough, but all of them had the same inherent qualities: very competent, fiercely protective and all very caring.”
Caputo earned her nursing degree and started as a nurse at UPMC Mercy, a place she’d visited frequently as a child because her stepmother and father both had worked there.
Recognizing her desire to always learn more, Caputo’s unit manager encouraged her to branch out.
She joined Presby’s trauma ICU staff in 2013 and calls it the place where she learned to be a better version of the nurse she already was. She thrives in the demanding environment where she’s consoling a scared patient one minute and encouraging a new nurse the next, all while making recommendations to physicians and helping advance evidence-based medicine. Many of the patients Caputo sees are enrolled in studies conducted by the physicians with whom she works.
“We get to see these positive outcomes, and it’s incredible to know that you really play a huge role in what will eventually help an innumerable amount of people throughout the world,” she says.
Caputo’s own chronic illness has forced her to become hospitalized several times since becoming a nurse, and she says witnessing her peers who care for her reminds her why she does what she does. She also keeps close with the nurses who helped her in the early days of her diagnosis and makes sure they know they can contact her any time they have a patient who is struggling with a similar diagnosis.
“If it weren’t for them, how would I ever have gone through something that was so life-changing for a young girl?” she says.
Patricia Watts Kelley understands firsthand the unique healthcare needs of the country’s servicemen and -women. A retired Navy Nurse Corps captain, Kelley is focused on helping nurses provide culturally congruent care to military service members, veterans and their families.
“My goal is to prepare the next generation of nurses and other allied health professionals to care for veterans and veterans’ families and service members’ families in the community so they’re more culturally astute on what that population’s healthcare needs may be,” says Kelley, professor and director of the Veterans to Bachelor in Nursing Science Program at Duquesne University.
Kelley’s career has included roles as Health Sciences Officer with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Deputy Director of Nursing and Allied Health Research with the Navy Medicine Research and Development Center, Director of Nursing Research Services at the National Naval Medical Center and Specialty Consultant to the US Navy Surgeon General for Nursing Research.
She was the first Navy Executive Director of the TriService Nursing Research Program and the first Navy family nurse practitioner at the Branch Medical Clinic La Magdalena in Sardinia, Italy.
Now in her fifth year at Duquesne, Kelley oversees a program aimed at encouraging veterans and military service members to enter the nursing profession.
“There are a lot of silent signatures of war,” Kelley says. “People who have had a traumatic brain injury or blast injury, physically, you look at them and they’re fine you think. But when you start to interview them, you figure out they’ve had some damage to their brain. Sometimes they have mood swings, they have memory issues, they can’t navigate as well. They have anger issues. There are special ways to do assessments and get people to help.”
Kelley conducts lectures on military and veteran culture at Duquesne and has developed several interprofessional courses to help other healthcare providers interested in the specifics of military culture understand everything from health issues to finances to services available to veterans.
With the understanding that the health of the people who need care is only as good as the health of the people caring for them, Kelley’s current work involves interviewing family members and partners of ill and wounded service members and veterans to find what systems of care are working best.
Kelley says the most rewarding part of what she does today is working with novice nurses and nurse scientists who will continue to advance the field.“It’s exciting to grow the next generation of nurses and instill in them their responsibility to the profession and to the patients they will care for,” she says.
- Kristi Hopfer
Registered Nurse Case Manager, Family Hospice, UPMC
- Rachel Shuster
Outpatient Nurse Coordinator II, University of Pittsburgh Physicians of UPMC, Center for Opioid Recovery
- Sharon Cropp
Nurse Manager, St. Clair Hospital
- Liz Konieczny
Emergency Department, Allegheny General Hospital
- Gwendolyn Lane
Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner, Pittsburgh Public Schools
- Traci Fick
Vice President Patient Care Services, Westmoreland & Frick Hospitals & Magnet Program Director, Excela Health
- Anne Hast
Chief Executive Officer, Advanced Surgical Hospital
- Courtney Stempfer
Unit Director, UPMC East
- Eric Jones
Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital
- Carol May
Manager, Supportive Care Program, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
- Lynette Judy
Osteoporosis Coordinator, Jefferson Hospital, Allegheny Health Network
- Brenda Cassidy
Assistant Professor, Coordinator Pediatric and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Programs, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, East Side Pediatrics
- Janette Ann Petro
Professor and Nursing Department Chair, Boyce Campus, Community College of Allegheny County
- Patricia Tuite
Assistant Professor and Director of the DNP Program, University of Pittsburgh
Lynn George PhD, RNE, CNE
Linda Homyk, MSN, BSN, RN
Heritage Valley Health System
Holly Lorenz, R.N., M.S.N.
Chief Nurse Executive
Paula Thomas, D.N.P., M.S.N., R.N.
President, UPMC Home Healthcare
UPMC Home Healthcare
Jackie Dunbar-Jacob, PhD, RN, FAAN
University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing
Diane Puccetti, R.N., BSN, MS
St. Clair Hospital
Mary Ellen Glassgow, PH.D., M.S.N., B.S.N
Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Adult Health
Duquesne University School of Nursing
Kathy Mayle, MBA, MNEd, RN
Helen Burns, Ph.D., R.N.
Sandra Rader, DNP, MSA, MSA, RN, NEA-BC
Nadine Englert, Ph.D., R.N.
Robert Morris University School of Nursing
Paula Coe, DNP, RN, NEA-BC
Allegheny Health Networks