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Second-career nursing professor finds her path by seeking solutions for the nursing workforce

KU School of Nursing faculty member Heather Nelson-Brantley, Ph.D., brings business skills from her prior career for a unique perspective on the challenges facing nursing.

Portrait of Heather Nelson-Brantley
Heather Nelson-Brantley is the inaugural director of the Rural Health Council and fellow in the coveted Betty Irene Moore Fellowship for Nurse Leaders and Innovators.

At the halfway point of 2023, Heather Nelson-Brantley admits it’s been a busy year, and the next six months promise to be no slower. That’s just the way she likes it.

Nelson-Brantley, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, said, “I like to tell people I’m drinking from a firehose, but it’s all my favorite things. And it is hard to balance them all because I’m so passionate about everything I’m working on.”

She made time to answer a few questions on how she’s serving her chosen profession.

So, why did you choose nursing as a career?

One thing to know about me is that I’m a second-career nurse. My former career was in business, and being a nurse was nowhere in my mind. I was running a very, very busy business managing a graphic arts department, and one day I had an epiphany to become a nurse.

What was the epiphany?

I was feeling maxed out in my former career and was looking for something more meaningful. When my cousin sent me a Christmas letter saying she had left her career in journalism to become a nurse, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I went up to my wife and said, "I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a nurse." And she said, "OK, that’s quite a bit different," and she completely supported me. She wanted me to do what made me happy, and it was absolutely the right path.

How did you find the courage to make such a dramatic life change?

It wasn’t easy. I was around 34 years old, and we had two young boys. I thought, "I don’t want them to see their mom unhappy.’ I wanted to do something meaningful with my life, something my boys could be proud of.

Are you able to take some of those skills from your previous career in business and use them in your nursing career?

That’s a great question because I thought I was starting over from scratch. But what I’ve discovered is that I have a great and unique skill set for studying nursing leadership. I knew right away that my passion was going to be around creating healthy work environments, and I saw such an opportunity to work in that space as a nurse. Eventually I focused my Ph.D. on nursing leadership and the work environment.

What have you discovered about the nursing workforce?

We tend to focus on the nursing pipeline — getting more nurses into practice — and that is important. But my true passion lies in keeping the nurses we do have, making sure they’re well cared for and not leaving the profession. A lot of my research is asking, “How do we support leaders so they can create the environments where nurses want to work and stay?"

So, how do you conduct research related to those issues?

A national study that I’m co-leading looks at care delivery model redesign, largely sparked by COVID. Because of COVID, nurses had to get super creative because there just weren’t enough resources. You saw those photos of nurses crumpled in a corner. What worked to support those nurses, and how is nursing now being delivered in new ways?

You recently completed a stint as the inaugural director of the Rural Health Council. What was that experience like?

Awesome, really. It’s one of the most rewarding roles I’ve served in. The Rural Health Council brings together faculty, students and staff from all of the professions within KU Medical Center and all three campuses. I’ve been able to see and learn what everybody is doing in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.

What’s your next big challenge in your nursing career?

I’ve recently been selected as a fellow for the Betty Irene Moore Fellowship for Nurse Leaders and Innovators. The cohort only has 16 fellows in the nation, and the organization is very intentional on who they put together. There’s a huge focus on health equity and the social determinants of health. The mission is to build national leaders in nursing. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

I’ll also continue our work toward a nursing leadership and workforce center for Kansas. The opportunity to help build the center makes me excited because it allows me to make a difference for the nursing workforce.

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