May 16, 2003

School of Nursing Founder’s Medalist prepares for birth, professionally and personally

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Dean Colleen Conway-Welch gives the School of Nursing Founder's Medal to Deanna Pilkenton during commencement ceremonies last Friday. (photo by Dana Johnson)

School of Nursing Founder’s Medalist prepares for birth, professionally and personally

The School of Nursing Founder’s Medalist, Deanna Pilkenton has known since she was in high school that she wanted to one day deliver babies.

“Nurse-Midwifery is one of the specialties that kind of chooses you. Most people feel like it’s something they’re called to do,” Pilkenton said.

Now a graduate of the School of Nursing’s program in Nurse-Midwifery, this year’s Founder’s Medalist is preparing to deliver a child of her own. “I guess you could say I took the program very seriously,” Pilkenton said jokingly.

She says being pregnant while going through the Nurse-Midwifery program has given her a unique perspective, and definitely had an impact on her pregnancy. “At first it made things a little more difficult, because I felt like I knew too much. But now that I’ve progressed in my pregnancy it has been a benefit to me. This is the best training I’ve had yet, being pregnant myself.”

Pilkenton came to the School of Nursing from San Diego, Calif., where she was working in social services as a bilingual case manager for at-risk youth and families. She also worked in Indiana as the director of an emergency homeless shelter. She has volunteered her time to work with the non-profit organization Witness For Peace, which took her to Nicaragua as part of a delegation for economic justice.

While in Central America, Pilkenton conducted grant-funded research on community development programs.

“The experience enhanced my Spanish proficiency and educated me on women’s health issues as they relate to family and community health,” Pilkenton said. She says it was another volunteer experience in Calcutta, India, working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying that solidified her commitment to a future in nursing.

“The experience helped form my philosophy that all people have a right to quality health care and to be treated with dignity,” she said.

Pilkenton has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology from Centre College in Kentucky, and enrolled in VUSN through the bridge program, allowing people from various studies outside of nursing to enter the graduate program.

She says her previous studies and work experience have complimented her Nurse-Midwifery studies. “Cultural anthropology is very applicable in the different practices of birth. I deal with a lot of ethnic minorities, and it has definitely affected my world view and how I deal with people, and how I practice,” said Pilkenton.

Pilkenton worked at the East End Women’s Health and Birth Center as part of her clinical rotation, where she now works part-time while counting the days until her own delivery date.

Being chosen as this year’s Founder’s Medalist came as a surprise to her. “I was shocked. I didn’t expect it. The group of nurse practitioners I am graduating with are an incredible group of people. I am extremely honored.”

Margaret McGill, M.N., interim director for the Nurse-Midwifery program, and a nursing instructor, says Pilkenton is a “midwife’s midwife.” “She is humble, calm, resourceful, knowledgeable, and strong. She is respectful of the power and beauty of birth. She was recognized by faculty and classmates as a leader because of these attributes,” said McGill. Chancellor Gordon Gee recognized Pilkenton in his speech to graduates in Memorial Gym, saying he has been told she is a “saint on earth.”

Pilkenton says one of her fondest memories of her years at VUSN is the time spent with her Nurse-Midwifery classmates. “The most important thing I got out of the program was the community I felt around me and my classmates. They will be a part of my family for life. We had a very special bond.”

Pilkenton was one of 11 midwifery students who graduated last Friday. The nursing school also awarded diplomas to 43 family nurse practitioners, 30 acute care nurse practitioners, 19 neonatal practitioners, 18 psychiatric, adult, and women’s health nurse practitioners, 16 pediatric, seven health services management, and one dual MSN/MBA student.

Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs, opened the ceremony offering congratulations to the graduates and praising the work of their educators. “Dean Conway-Welch and her faculty have really built a curriculum and program that’s unmatched at any other university,” said Jacobson. “The career you have chosen is demanding. It will require the most of you both physically and mentally,” he cautioned, but said it will also prove to be a rewarding career. “The world of health care needs you.”

Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., dean of the School of Nursing, recognized Dean Emeritus Luther Christman, who returned for this year’s graduation ceremony. Christman was VUSN’s first male dean, serving from 1967 to 1972, and the first male dean of a school of nursing in the country. She also applauded the years of contribution from Nancy Travis, a generous alumni member of the school, also on hand for commencement.

Conway-Welch noted that Pilkenton is the third Founder’s Medalist to also be recognized as a recipient of the Travis Scholar award.

Conway-Welch told graduates they were entering the nursing profession in the most exciting time. “You are entering the health care industry at a time when nursing is being valued,” Conway-Welch said. “The best estimate of the size of the current nursing shortage indicates the nation’s demands for RNs exceed the existing supply by 110,000, and the shortage is projected to swell to between 400,000 to 800,000 by the year 2020. It will be your training and education here at Vanderbilt that will set you apart from others and lead you through the challenges that lie ahead. You are the glue that will hold out health care system together,” said Conway-Welch.

She challenged the graduates to face “great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems,” as they set out to make their mark in the 21st century.