by Joelle Moran, Staff Writer
After more than 30 years in nursing, Sharon Pappas, RN, PhD, and CNO at Porter Adventist Hospital, is enjoying the role she plays in helping nursing leaders emerge from the bedside. By building relationships and bringing people together to follow their passions, Pappas has created an environment that involves nurses in decisions that affect them.
“When the nursing environment is right, nurses do their best work,” she said. “That’s what I love to do.” It’s this work as “keeper of the environment” for nurses that helped Pappas earn the honor of being named one of Colorado’s six Nightingale Award winners in May for exceptional contributions to human caring. The Nightingale Award was founded in 1985 to honor nurses who best exemplify the philosophy and practice of Florence Nightingale, a 19th century nursing pioneer who epitomized the art of helping people toward their optimal health.
“I was really thrilled to have won an award named for someone I have had a tremendous amount of respect for all my career,” Pappas said. “She was very focused on outcomes and really well aligned with what I believe about nursing practice.”
Pappas said she was also proud to bring attention to Porter and its parent company Centura Health, supporting her mission of making the hospital known for its nursing care. In the weeks after winning the award, she said she received congratulatory e-mails from nurses from across the state. “The support from nurses I’ve practiced with in other places and in different roles I’ve played in the community has meant a great deal,” she said.
Under Pappas’ leadership, Porter also received Magnet designation from the American Nursing Credentialing Center earlier this year for excellence in nursing. Only 5 percent of hospitals in the country earn the honor which recognizes quality patient care, nursing excellence and innovations in professional nursing practice. Pappas’ journey to nursing leader started in high school when her grandfather was being treated for heart problems at Emory University in Atlanta. Pappas was in her grandfather’s room with her mother getting ready to take him home when a nurse came in and showed him how to work his pacemaker.
“What that said to me is that she wanted my grandpa to live and teach him how to return to his life,” Pappas said. “That just spoke to me. To be able to do this the rest of my life — to help people have a functional and good life — I thought it was such a wonderful thing she was doing. I was a junior in high school. I knew exactly what I was going to do.”
She went on to earn her BSN from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta in 1975 and then practiced clinically where she discovered several passions. Working in cardiology at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, Pappas cared for children who had heart surgery and says she “fell in love with the function of the heart.” She then went on to an adult coronary care unit, which led her to become certified as an emergency nurse, where she practiced for the greatest part of her clinical career.
“My love of hearts got me there,” she said of emergency care. “I was intrigued by patients with acute heart problems.” One day Pappas was practicing in a large Level 1 Trauma center and the nurse manager left and the administrator asked her to be manager as they searched for a replacement. “I moved into that role and fell in love with leadership,” she said. “I found that in that world I began to understand how important to nursing the work environment is. If you create a great place for nurses to practice and if nurses are doing their best practice, the patients win.”
While working in the trauma center, she earned her MSN from Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, GA., in 1989, and met her husband, who is a Colorado native. They moved to Colorado and Pappas took a position with St. Anthony’s Central Hospital as nurse manager for the telemetry unit and coronary intensive care. From there, Pappas moved into a director role over the cardiology programs at St. Anthony Central and North, where she managed for seven years. It was at this leadership position that Pappas found what she calls “the key to the castle.” She said when you involve people and include them in decisions that affect them and patient care, build relationships among that team and hold them accountable, everyone takes it forward together.
“The fun thing about that role is I had a chance to engage a group of nursing leaders in developing goals for the program and achieving those goals,” she said. “I felt we did that because they were involved in setting and monitoring and making those goals and celebrating when we did achieve goals. “We really achieved some great improvement in patient outcomes during that time. That was a lot of fun.”
The opportunity for Pappas to move to Porter as chief nursing officer came in 1998. At that point in her career, she said she was ready to create the same attention she had brought to clinical situations on a larger scale across an entire hospital. She saw the Porter CNO position as an opportunity to build the role that nursing plays in clinical and financial outcomes of the hospital. It was developing this strategic pathway that became part of her doctoral work. She earned her PhD from the University of Colorado Denver College of Nursing in 2007. One of Pappas’ highest accomplishments at Porter was spearheading the campaign to earn Magnet designation. She said this was a long, sought-after goal, which she immediately noticed the potential for 11 years ago.
“When I came here in late 90s, as I got to know the nurses, it became clear to me that they deserved to be recognized,” she said. “We had so many positive patient outcomes. The nurses really took patient care seriously.”
In her first five years as CNO, she focused on improving nurse-physician relationships and improving the decision-making structure for the nursing staff. In 2004-2005, once the structures were in place and working well, she said she spoke with about 300 nurses and got a consensus that Porter should go for the distinguished Magnet designation. That decision started a years’ long process of developing ongoing nursing education and clear shared governance structure for decision-making. The nursing staff devoted a lot of time to developing nursing research and evidence-based practice. Porter applied for Magnet designation in 2006,submitted its documentation in August 2008 and found out in had earned the status in January 2009.
“I think physicians love Magnet hospitals too,” Pappas said. “Our medical staff believes it is wonderful that nurses are their partners in patient care.”
Pappas is proud of the recognition she’s helped Porter achieve and truly enjoys her job. “One of the basic things about me is work I do and absolutely love is like weaving blankets,” she said. “I think one of things I enjoy is people — getting to know their strengths and things about them, what they love the most. I love building those relationships.” In her 11 years as CNO, Pappas said her fearless drive to try and create new things has led to her and Porter’s success. “All of that courage plus innovation has allowed my staff to have that same sort of permission to try the new things and be the best they can be,” she said, attributing her courage to her mother, who told her to take risks and work things out. Another trait that has supported Pappas’ success is the sense of humor her father instilled in her.
“Having a sense of humor in health care enables you to not be so hard on yourself and strive for the very best you can be,” she said. “That’s important for nurses today, where we live in a world where everyone is expected to be so perfect.” Her courageous, fun approach to work is clearly paying off — for Porter and Pappas. “When you shift to a nursing philosophy about involving nurses in decisions that affect them, it is just so exciting to see what’s capable of happening,” she said. “I think that’s what got us recognized as a Magnet hospital. “That’s were patient care is paramount and where strong relationships exist between nursing and healthcare teams and where they become clear on doing their best work.”