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Retirement won’t slow down pioneering neonatal nurse Odessa Settles

Jan. 19, 2024, 2:52 PM

Among her many accomplishments, Odessa Settles participated on the first-ever Angel I Newborn Emergency Transport Ambulance in 1974. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Among her many accomplishments, Odessa Settles participated on the first-ever Angel I Newborn Emergency Transport Ambulance in 1974. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Odessa Settles may have retired after spending more than 50 years as a neonatal nurse, but her career is far from over.

She is glad she took her own advice to develop an interest outside of medicine — “one that will sustain you mentally and spiritually.”

In 2024, her love of music and entertainment will take center stage.

In December 2023, Settles, RN, MSN, CM, saw her last patient in the Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD) Follow-Up Clinic at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt that she helped to establish in 1984. It is one of the longest-running clinics of its type in the country.

It is one of many accomplishments since beginning at Monroe Carell in 1969 as a nursing assistant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), working under the tutelage of Mildred Stahlman, MD. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Settles returned to the NICU as a staff nurse, where she participated on the first-ever Angel I Newborn Emergency Transport Ambulance in 1974 and served as the transport lead practitioner from the mid-1980s through 1999.

She participated in a multitude of long-term research projects and initiatives. She was the recipient of the Hidden Figures Award in 2018, a tribute to employees who have made significant long-term contributions to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, often behind the scenes. She also received Vanderbilt University’s Martin Luther King Jr., Award (and the Nashville Symphony’s Martin Luther King Jr., award), for her focus on diversity and inclusion.

“In my life, I have tried to build bridges,” said Settles. “Whether in my personal life or as a nurse. I wanted to learn about and develop relationships that may have seemed unlikely to some. I worked hard to become knowledgeable from a professional standpoint and within the community as well.

“It is one of the things that brought me to Vanderbilt.”

A native Nashvillian, Settles is a founding member of the Princely Players, a high-school ensemble specializing in spirituals, work songs, hymns and songs of freedom. The group was invited to perform at Vanderbilt’s Impact Symposium when Robert Kennedy spoke in 1968.

Odessa Settles is also a singer, songwriter, actress, model and mentor to various artists. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Odessa Settles is also a singer, songwriter, actress, model and mentor to various artists. (photo by Susan Urmy)

“I grew up in a segregated society and was always interested in learning more about multiculturalism and race issues. My entire career was an opportunity for life-changing impact.”

She shared one of many stories that highlight the importance of treating people with respect. A transport encounter, early in her career, proved to be lifechanging for all.

“When we arrived at the hospital ED, the baby was critically ill. Dad was there with the baby. Mom was still in recovery. The hospital staff immediately looked to the white members of our team for direction. When they learned that I was the person who was in charge, the father didn’t want me to touch his child.

“I pulled him aside, because without my intervention, the baby, born at less than 30 weeks gestation, would likely die. I told him, ‘Today, let’s not make this about you or me — make it about wanting to give your son a chance. If you say no, I have to walk away, and I don’t want to do that.’” Through tears he gave me permission.”

Settles said her team performed the necessary clinical tasks, transported and stabilized the newborn, who spent many months in the NICU at Monroe Carell.

“It was months later that this father walked up to me and asked if I remembered him. He gave me a hug and just kept saying thank you.

“There are many stories like that. It is a lesson I teach when mentoring others about the importance of putting everyone on an even playing field. For us, the family is the patient.”

Settles is satisfied with where her clinical career landed her and is now settling into her new routine.

As a singer, songwriter, actress, model and mentor to various artists, her plate will be full.

“I grew up in a family of musicians, and I will continue to work in that field. Both of my careers have been so rewarding. I tell so many people to be sure to develop outside interests; it helps you to evolve and not be stagnant.

“I feel like everything I have done has been a great accomplishment,” said Settles. “And being able to take advantage of the opportunities is what keeps life exciting.”

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