June 1, 2023

Brenda Campbell lifts patients’ spirits with smiles, humor and genuine love

“I love people, I love helping, and I love what I do. Some of the patients who come don’t want to live. Some of them don’t have any support. I let them know, ‘Somebody loves you. You’re loved. You’re worthy of being loved. You’re so special and valued.”

Brenda Campbell, Behavioral Health Specialist, at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital is the Patient and Family Choice Award winner for Behavioral Health.

Brenda Campbell, Behavioral Health Specialist and winner of the 2023 Patient and Family Choice Award. Photo by Susan Urmy. 

When Behavioral Health Specialist Brenda Campbell’s charge nurse requested, with a bit of a sharp tone, to see her, Campbell thought, “What have I done?”

Much to her surprise, Campbell wasn’t in trouble: she was being honored for making a positive difference in the lives of many patients at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital.

Campbell is one of five employees chosen for the Patient and Family Choice Awards, sponsored and selected by each of the four patient and family advisory councils. Nominations were submitted by patients and families.

“I’ll remember that surprise party for the rest of my life,” Campbell said. “The love they gave me? Oh my goodness. I hugged everyone. I’m a hugger. I even hugged the photographer. I’d never seen that person before in my life, but I said, ‘Come here and let me hug you!’”

When she applied for a job at Vanderbilt University Medical Center five years ago, Campbell had no intention of being a hands-on part of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital’s Psychiatric Assessment Service. She wanted an easy shift job — something that would allow her to come in, monitor patients and go home — but that plan didn’t get past the interview process.

Campbell sees now that she was called to this work.

“I love people, I love helping, and I love what I do,” she said. “Some of the patients who come don’t want to live. Some of them don’t have any support. I let them know, ‘Somebody loves you. You’re loved. You’re worthy of being loved. You’re so special and valued. What would the world be without you?’”

When patients curse her and say they want to leave, Campbell responds with empathy and encouragement.

“I say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t leave once you come in,’” Campbell said. “They say, ‘Oh you’re going to lock me up,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re not going to lock you up. We’re going to help you. You know why Vanderbilt has it set up like that? Because we care about you. This is a safe place. You’re going to get the help you need.’”

During her 12-hour shifts, Campbell, who calls herself a “structure person,” performs weapons searches on walk-ins; does 15-minute checks to make sure patients are safe and breathing; helps patients with the TVs and phone chargers; keeps the nurses’ station stocked with juice, water, Gatorade, milk and coffee; and distributes the breakfast, lunch and dinner trays.

“I want them to be comfortable and have everything they need because they’re not at home,” she said. “When I come around with the trays, I’ll joke around and say, ‘I’ve come to serve you today! What do you want? I’ve got peanut butter and jelly. I’ve got steak and gravy.’ And they just crack up. It helps break the ice and establish a rapport.”

No day or patient is the same, and Campbell likes it that way. She sees every interaction as an opportunity.

“People will say, ‘Brenda, you can’t go in that room. That patient doesn’t like people.’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh yes I can,’” she said. “I’ll go in there and smile, and I’ll say, ‘What’s going on, sir? Are you OK? And the person they said didn’t like people ends up loving Brenda because I’m going to throw all that love at him. And I’m going to throw a thousand smiles at him at one time. And I’m going to tell him how awesome he is, and how I care about him and how he can’t stop me from caring about him. I tell him, ‘If you didn’t get that love at home, you’re going to get it today.’”

One of the many patients who nominated Campbell for the Patient and Family Choice Award said she “brought light to the room in an otherwise dark situation.”

“She took care of my needs; she helped me get things ready for a shower. She treated me with a smile and went out of her way to help me work the phone so that I could let my wife know where I was. She went upstairs to wash my clothes, and she didn’t have to do this. She is the best! If anyone should get an award, it should be her.”

Campbell remembers that patient and was touched to learn what felt like a small act of kindness to her made a big impression on him.

“When he came in, he was dirty and had nothing,” she said. “He kept asking me if I could wash his clothes, and I know we don’t do that, but I thought, no, this man has to have his dignity. I think about how I’d want to be treated and how I’d want my mother or children to be treated. I got his clothes, took them upstairs (to the inpatient unit), washed them and brought them back.”

Originally from Chicago, Campbell has lived in Nashville for 45 years. She’s a single foster mother and also has an adult son and daughter. Before she came to Vanderbilt, she was a probation officer, a domestic violence caseworker and ran a level III group home.

The 2023 Patient and Family Choice Award honors employees from across Vanderbilt University Medical Center who act with compassion and excellence to provide an exceptional experience for patients and their families. Each year, the patient and family advisory councils bestow awards to five individuals from Vanderbilt University Hospital, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt Behavioral Health, Vanderbilt Adult Ambulatory Clinics and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital.

“It feels so good to be recognized for what I do because I give 120 percent,” she said. “When someone says, ‘thank you for doing a good job,’ that’s like a million dollars to me. At the Vanderbilt Psych Unit we never know what we’re going to get, but we treat each person with love.”