March 16, 2001

Last to finish, NICU nurse outscores field

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Terri Gay, R.N., scored 799 out of a possible 900 to capture the highest score of the neonatal nurse practitioner exam. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Last to finish, NICU nurse outscores field

After three hours of concentrating on picking the right multiple choice answer and filling in the circles for a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner exam, Terri Gay looked up and discovered she was the only test-taker left in the room.

Although Gay typically does well on standardized tests, her confidence plummeted that day.

“It’s just that I was the last person,” Gay recalled. “It was a three-hour test and I stayed a solid three hours. Since I was the last to turn my test in, I was not so sure I passed it.

“My goal was simply to pass the exam and survive the six-week wait for notification of the results.”

Her diligence paid off and big. Gay not only passed the exam – she scored the highest. Out of a possible maximum score of 900, Gay’s score was 799.

It was definitely an added bonus to her passing grade, she said.

“Not many people know about this,” she said. “When most people asked if I had received my grade, I mostly just told them that I passed – period.”

Gay said her experience as an NICU nurse played a role in her performance, but admitted that some of the toughest questions focused on things that did not routinely surface.

As a 2000 graduate of the VUSN master’s neonatal nurse practitioner program, she was able to couple a solid curriculum and more than 20 years of experience to tackle the exam.

She has been an NICU nurse for 22 years – 12 years at Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital.

“This exam has a pretty high failure rate,” Gay said. “It is well known for its content, difficulty and specialization.”

According to Karen D’Apolito, R.N., Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the NNP program at VUSN, the national passing average is 53 percent. Vanderbilt’s graduates consistently surpass the national average.

“This is great that one of our students scored the highest among those taking the test in December,” D’Apolito said. “I’m elated and very proud of her. It makes me proud of the program and what we are doing.”

Of the 45 nurses taking the exam during that testing session, only 24 passed.

Advice she would pass along to perspective test takers?

Go at your own pace and know your strengths and weaknesses.

Gay said when she first became interested in neonatal nursing the concept was still fairly new. She did not hesitate to ask NICU nurses to teach her what they were doing. Her interest in the field became a love for helping critically ill babies and their families.

“People often ask me how I can do this type of nursing,” Gay said. “I tell them that I see a lot of miracles in here – lots.”