Thomas Smith went to college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but the ability to work with patients led him to nursing instead. After growing up outside Pittsburgh, Thomas earned his BSN at West Virginia Wesleyan College (WVWC) in Buckhannon in 1984. He started out in oncology in New York City, then moved back to West Virginia, where he explored various clinical areas – adult care, pediatrics, the intensive care unit, and nursing education. In 1989, he earned a master’s in education and higher education administration, continuing his work in the hospital and also becoming a health education consultant.
A whole new perspective
In the early 1990s, Thomas moved away from the bedside and into managed care. When he relocated to Richmond, Virginia, he had the opportunity to become the director/chief operating officer for the Virginia operations of WVMI, a quality improvement organization. Thomas completed an executive fellowship in patient safety during this time at Virginia Commonwealth University. He continued to work his way up over the next decade in healthcare quality positions. Thomas was also involved in the nursing profession, serving as president for the National Association for Healthcare Quality and on the board of West Virginia Wesleyan, his undergraduate alma mater. When the academic dean approached Thomas in 2012 and asked him to consider a position as director of the School of Health Sciences, he and his family decided the opportunity was worth taking-despite the college being five hours away from Richmond.
A leap of faith
The segue into higher education administration made Thomas feel that a doctorate program made good sense. A friend and mentor, Shirley Gibson, had graduated from American Sentinel with a DNP, executive leadership specialization the year before and encouraged Thomas to take a look. Ultimately he entered the DNP, educational leadership specialization program, which he felt would benefit both his leadership and educational endeavors. Simultaneously, he got an apartment in Buckhannon and dove into his new job – and both his son and daughter started college at WVWC during that time.
A new turn, a new job
Two years into his time at West Virginia Wesleyan – while commuting home only every other weekend – Thomas started searching for job possibilities back in the Richmond area. He received a call from Community Health Systems, one of the nation’s leading operators of general acute care hospitals. The company’s vice president was referred to Thomas by a colleague and wanted to discuss potential opportunities including a regional director position.
Much as he loved his role at WVWC, Thomas decided to return to Richmond to accept the position after the conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year. In his new role, he assists hospitals with care management and overall compliance, fiscal integrity and quality care. As a regional director, he has responsibility for ten hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, but also works in a float capacity to assist other divisions across the country. “It’s similar to what I was doing before academia,” Thomas says, adding that the new role allows him time to teach. “I go into hospitals to work with their administrative, care coordination and management, and transition teams to assist their employees to become future leaders for the organizations.”
Earning the DNP
In June 2015, amid moves across the state and two job changes, Thomas completed the Doctor of Nursing Practice, educational leadership specialization. “From the first residency program to the very end, it was great,” he says. “I think the program pushed me to think outside the box.” Thomas enjoyed the program so much, he has recommended it to colleagues – and even recommended American Sentinel to his wife, Denise. Denise, a neonatal intensive care unit manager, is currently pursuing the MSN. “My wife, kids and I were all in college at the same time,” he laughs.
A model graduate
Thomas and Denise attended his commencement ceremony in June. Graduation was made all the more special when Thomas learned he received the Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence, given to one graduate in each academic program. As he moves toward retirement and thinks about teaching as an adjunct in the near future, the DNP and the “excellent practicum experience” have been valuable. “The DNP has already helped me tremendously.”
Inspired by Thomas’ story? A DNP with a specialization in educational leadership prepares master’s-educated nurses for leadership roles in nursing education programs. When you acquire new knowledge, you can apply it to nursing practice in ways that enhance patient care and improve outcomes.
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