Employee Spotlight

May 28, 2024

Nurses support one another as they grieve colleague

Nurses are accustomed to comforting patients and families through loss, but when they lose one of their own, it hurts in a unique, palpable way. Fortunately, they can count on each other.

Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital nurse, Kim McKinney, RN, director of the regional hospital’s critical care unit and progressive care unit, suffered a medical emergency and wrecked her car in early May. She was taken to nearby Vanderbilt Bedford Hospital where the ER staff recognized her, stabilized her, and transported her to Vanderbilt University Hospital via LifeFlight. Nurses across the three hospitals not only knew McKinney but cared about her and for her.

Marilyn Smith

McKinney, who started at Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital (VTHH) as a certified nurse assistant 20 years ago and rose to the rank of director, succumbed to her medical emergency and died in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at VUH on May 16, at age 46.

“Kim was such a great ICU nurse,” said McKinney’s manager, Marilyn Smith, DNP, MSN, RN, NE-BC, VTHH chief nursing officer. “She could look at a patient and know exactly what was going on with him or her. She could read through a lab and know exactly what interventions were needed. She just knew nursing and how to practice it.”

Nurses, of course, are accustomed to comforting patients and families through loss, but when they lose one of their own, it hurts in a unique, palpable way. And caring for patients doesn’t yield to their need to grieve a colleague who has died.

Vanderbilt Bedford Hospital (VBH) chief nursing officer, Angela Carter, and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital (VWCH) chief nursing officer, Jeanne Yeatman, recognized this and devised a plan to staff VTHH to allow the nurses there to attend McKinney’s funeral on May 19.

“Jeanne called me, crying, and said, ‘Marilyn, we will staff your hospital. We are prepared to staff it so your staff can go to the funeral.’ I started crying,” Smith said.

VWCH nurses covered the 14-bed ICU, and VBH nurses helped cover the 27-bed progressive care unit — without interrupting workflow.

“Those two chief nursing officers worked with their teams,” Smith said. “Jeanne collaborated with Whitney McKelvie, assistant manager for VTHH ICU/PCU, to coordinate the entire thing for us when we were so weak and broken.

“On the day of the funeral, not only did they come and staff, they brought cupcakes and flowers for the staff, and they came prepared. It was a sight to behold.”

Marilyn Smith

Additionally, the VTHH community donated funds to ensure that McKinney’s family had the means to not worry about food, gas or housing during her 12-day stay at VUH. Her daughters Allyiah Tate and Acacia Tate and son, Issaiah Tate, all worked at VTHH in the Emergency Room at one point, and Acacia and Issaiah remain employees there. McKinney’s sister, Sherry Sims, works for the registration department at VTHH, and her nephew, Alan Hendon, CRNA, works at VUH in the anesthesiology department.

McKinney received the Nancy Wells Evidence-Based Practice and Nursing Research Award during Nurses Week. She knew she was nominated but wasn’t certain that she had been chosen to receive it. “We were trying to make it a surprise,” Smith said, adding that her family was made aware of the honor at her memorial service.

As the nursing staff at VTHH comes to terms with their loss — 130 nurses and other staff members reported to McKinney — Smith remains in awe of the help they received in their time of need.

“The collaboration among teams at Vanderbilt made it happen. Folks here just knew exactly what to do in a time of crisis and knew what they had to do to pull us through to the other side,” she said.