January 31, 1997

Tucker thrives on caring for her ‘great big VUMC family’

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Pat Tucker, assistant director of the Occupational Health Service, has made a career out of taking care of VUMC faculty and staff.

Tucker thrives on caring for her 'great big VUMC family'

If you've worked at Vanderbilt for very long, and ever been sick or hurt on the job, chances are you've met Pat Tucker, the assistant director of the Occupational Health Service. She has seen more staff and faculty through colds, flu, ankle sprains, and other ailments than she can count.

But one thing that not many people know about Tucker is her trailblazing role in nursing, both at Vanderbilt and elsewhere in Tennessee. Pat Tucker was an advanced practice nurse before being an advanced practice nurse was cool.

Tucker has been at VUMC since 1974, working in the Occupational Health Service that whole time. Not only was she one of the first advanced practice nurses at VUMC, she was also the first full-time occupational health nurse at Vanderbilt.

She takes the mission of the Occupational Health Service ‹ caring for the people of Vanderbilt ‹ seriously.

"Vanderbilt is a very big place, a great big family, and you have to take care of your family," she said. "Vanderbilt attracts good people, and I like to think this service is part of that."

Tucker's role as the most constant and visible face of Occupational Health has come as a surprise even to her.

"I know so many people here, and people know me," she said. "The most gratifying thing to me is taking care of people's ailments. I get satisfaction from seeing somebody get better. You get instant feedback.

"But I think the most far-reaching things we do are our prevention and medical surveillance. I think those things affect more people."

Tucker is a native of Tullahoma and considers it her home town, but she lived for several of her early years in Akron, Ohio, where her father moved the family so he could work in the rubber factories. Her father joined the service during World War II, but when he came back from the war things weren't the same. He stayed in Akron, and Pat's mother moved her and her younger brother Ron back home to Tullahoma. Tucker's mother supported the family by making baseballs in the Wilson Sporting Goods plant.

"We had a single parent, but the term wasn't even coined then," she said. "It didn't cause me any lasting trauma or anything, but it was the exception rather than the rule, and I was acutely aware of that."

Tucker graduated from Tullahoma high school and considered her future.

"We had sort of limited resources and I didn't really have any role models," she said. "I had good grades but nobody in my family had gone to college. This was 1955, and most girls out of high school got married, became teachers or became nurses."

Tucker decided to become a nurse. She enrolled at the St. Thomas School of Nursing, which was operated by St. Thomas Hospital. At that time, it was still common practice for hospitals to operate their own schools, with the students working in the hospital.

"You went to school, you paid low tuition, you got a stipend, and you learned fast," she said. "It actually was a very good way to learn. Those schools produced excellent bedside nurses, which is what they were for."

Tucker lived in the St. Thomas nursing student dormitory at the corner of 21st Avenue and Church Street for the three years she was in school, and shortly after she graduated she got a job at the V.A. hospital in Murfreesboro. One day friends introduced her to Robert Blythe Tucker, a veteran of Korea going to Middle Tennessee State University on the GI Bill, on the premise that since he and Pat Tucker had the same last name, they might like to meet each other. The two Tuckers discovered that they were not related, but they liked each other nonetheless. They married.

Bob, who is now retired, was a systems analyst for General Electric, and his job kept the Tucker family on the move for the next 10 years. They lived in Huntsville, Ala., twice, Gulfport, Miss., Chattanooga, and Columbus, Ohio. And along the way there were four children ‹ Lisa in 1959, Robert in 1962, Julia in 1964, and Jim in 1965.

"I didn't work for nine years while we had all these little children," Tucker said. "But in 1971, we moved back to Tennessee, bought a house in Brentwood, and Jim started first grade. It was time for Mom to go back to work. I was getting brain rust."

In the nine years Tucker had been away from nursing, a revolution had occurred; critical care units had become commonplace, technology had exploded, and Tucker had a lot of catching up to do. And even when she caught up, things just weren't the same. She was older than most of her colleagues, and bedside nursing somehow wasn't as much fun as she remembered.

It was at this point that Tucker heard of the class for advanced practice nurses at Vanderbilt ‹ news that would change her life. There were eight graduates in her class when she was awarded her certificate in 1974, all RNs with work experience. She knew of two job openings for someone with her training ‹ one with Vanderbilt, one with the state of Tennessee. She chose Vanderbilt. As one of the first advanced practice nurses at VUMC, she helped pave the way for the acceptance of others in all areas of the Medical Center. The Vanderbilt School of Nursing has even changed its focus from undergraduate education to training advanced practice nursing.

"It's just absolutely amazing, and gratifying," Tucker said. "Vanderbilt has excellent advanced practice nurses, and it's really a great feeling."

Dr. Mary I. Yarbrough, assistant professor of Medicine and director of the Occupational Health Service, is Tucker's current boss, following Dr. Anderson Spickard and Dr. Ann Price. Recently when Tucker received the Reflection Award from Human Resources, Yarbrough said, "Her name is synonymous with employee health. Pat embodies the pioneer spirit upon which Vanderbilt prides itself. But Pat's greatest accomplishment is the endless care and compassion she provides those of us in the Vanderbilt community."

Tucker said that one of the things that keeps her job fresh after all these years is the way employee health keeps changing.

"We started the Employee Assistance Program in '78 or '79. That was new and exciting for the university to be doing," she said. Tucker nurtured the program to help staff and faculty through personal problems to the point where it was so successful it needed its own director. She has worked through name changes, location changes and program changes, but has maintained her interest in helping staff and faculty.

"Sometimes you see dramatic changes in health and behavior, and you feel you had a little something to do with that," she said.

And when she looks to the future, what the grandmother of seven sees is a change in behavior on her own part.

"I like to garden, I like to read and I like to bum around on the beach, and when I retire it's going to be somewhere warm."