May 18, 2007

Graduation 2007: Winding road leads to VUSN Founder’s Medal

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Robin Riley, left, accepts this year’s School of Nursing Founder’s Medal from VUSN Dean Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D.
(photo by Susan Urmy)

Graduation 2007: Winding road leads to VUSN Founder’s Medal

Robin Riley is a family nurse practitioner, mother, grandmother, former business woman — and the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing’s 2007 Founder's Medalist honored in this year's commencement ceremony.

“I reinvented myself to become a nurse,” said Riley.

Riley retired after working for 27 years with IBM, which took her across the West, and then became a property manager with her sister in Southern Florida for several years. She moved back to Middle Tennessee to be close to her grandchildren, but felt there was something missing in her life. She attended a missionary trip to Mexico with a local church and realized the great need for health care for the underserved. At the time, she had no health care experience, but was willing to pitch in.

“I had never done anything clinical before, but we saw patients all day every day and it changed my life,” said Riley. “I knew I wanted to use my life to make a difference.”

She applied to the Vanderbilt School of Nursing program as a non-nurse to become a family nurse practitioner. During her nursing education, she got involved in the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance in the area of dentistry as an important part of overall health.

She also did a clinical rotation in rural Utah that would provide a strong foundation for her current position. Her training and self-motivation come in handy in her role at the Sage Memorial Hospital Complex, part of the Navajo Health Foundation.

The complex is in a remote area in the northeast corner of Arizona, more than 45 minutes away from any other health care facility. As a family nurse practitioner, Riley helps serve more than 20,000 residents. She spends most of her time in the outpatient clinic where between two and four providers see 30 to 80 patients each day who travel long distances for their health care needs.

Riley is working hard to build relationships with her patients and to learn more about the Navajo culture. For instance, her Navajo patients are not comfortable making direct eye contact, and while Anglos enjoy a hearty handshake, most Navajos prefer a light clasp with no shaking. Understanding these nuances helps her built trust with her patients.

She believes VUSN gave her a strong foundation, particularly in gathering and looking at information, and that her current position provides her an opportunity to learn more every day.

“I'm honored and flabbergasted to be recognized as this year's Founder's Medalist,” said Riley. “When I go home at night, I feel like I've made a difference.”