Heather Norton - Vivian Nurses Week Winner

Heather Thornton Wins the $5k Vivian Nurses Week Leadership Award

Vivian Health is excited to announce that Heather Thornton, DNP, RN, CNE, from Michigan, has won our 2024 Nurses Week Leadership Award. Heather isn’t one to sing her own praises, so she almost didn’t even enter the contest. We’re glad she did because she had a powerful story to share that demonstrated her empathy, positive impact on patients and colleagues, leadership and personal growth.

We created The Vivian Nurses Week Leadership Award to recognize the hard work and dedication of nurses everywhere by sharing their stories and shedding more light on the challenges they must overcome to serve their communities every day. We’re committed to advocating for the issues that matter most to nurses, including the heavy burden of student loan debt that many of them carry.

Vivian Nurses Week Leadership Award Winning Story

Nurses Week Post 2024

Heather advises against labeling patients to ensure the best care and outcomes. She shared this outlook with a nursing student she was working with and helped them learn a valuable lesson during a shift, making a tremendous difference in one patient’s life. Read her story submission in its entirety below.

“While working with a nursing student, I advocated for a patient to be seen as a human being experiencing legitimate pain rather than a label. The patient was a person in her 50s and had been admitted with unrelieved chest pain on the night shift. The admitting RN didn’t report the ongoing pain to the physician because the nurse felt the patient was a ‘drug seeker’ who just ‘woke up long enough’ to ask for more morphine.”

“The student and I completed an assessment and decided to ask the physician assistant to evaluate the patient immediately. Upon further evaluation, it was discovered that the patient had a dissecting aortic aneurysm, as well as several other dissecting aneurysms scattered throughout her body. The surgeons who were contacted about the case felt the patient would never survive surgery. After a lengthy intervention and ICU stay complicated by strokes, the patient walked out of the hospital in good health.”

“This story reinforces the idea that labels are never appropriate in healthcare. Not only do they dehumanize people, but they also skew our judgment and blind us to the needs and unique history of the people in our care.”

“This particular patient had never used a narcotic in her life. Therefore, she experienced the expected side effect of drowsiness. However, her symptoms, when viewed through a lens of bias, were interpreted and labeled as ‘drug seeking’ and a decision was made by the admitting nurse to disregard the protocol to report unrelieved chest pain to the provider. Had the student and I agreed with the nurse, the patient would have died. Instead, we chose compassion, collaboration and advocacy, and the patient lived.”

“While I wish the patient would’ve received the appropriate care sooner, I know this was an invaluable lesson for the student and me.”

Over her 20+ years in nursing, Heather has many stories similar to the one she told us. She chose this one because she felt it was particularly good for inspiring young nurses to advocate for their patients.

“This is what motivates me every day in my job as a nurse educator,” said Thornton. “I tell this story to my students every semester. What I want them to hear is if they do what we’re teaching them, they save lives. In all reality, I didn’t do anything particularly amazing. I just did what I was supposed to do as a nurse.”

Get to Know Our Winner Better

Heather Thornton

At 17, Heather volunteered on a cancer unit. The first day she volunteered on that unit, a 26-year-old person from her hometown passed away. He’d been a veteran and came back from the war physically intact but got bone cancer and lost both legs. 

“When he passed away that day, his mother cradled him in her arms, and she just wept over him like he was an infant again,” Heather told us. “I still get chills when I think about that moment. The nurses swept in, and they gave such a level of care and compassion to his mother and his wife. In that moment, I thought – that’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”

Heather jumped into the role of nursing and never looked back. She’s been in healthcare in one capacity or another for more than 20 years. She graduated nursing school in 2003, and there was a nursing shortage then, too. 

After earning her BSN, she worked several years at the bedside in the cardiac unit, oncology, hospice, mental health and surgical care. While she loves working with patients, she really enjoys teaching and training the next generation of nurses. To become a professor and Certified Nurse Educator, Heather returned to school to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees, which she funded through student loans, a common occurrence in nursing.

Heather took on a great deal of student loan debt to earn her advanced degrees so she could teach, but she’s glad she chose this path because she feels teaching is her calling.

“If I went back to the bedside, I’m just one nurse,” said Heather. “If I continue to teach, it’s hundreds of nurses.”

Even though she’s a full-time professor now, she hasn’t completely left the bedside. She still teaches clinicals and interacts with patients in that way. Dr. Thornton currently teaches at a small four-year college in a rural area, where they support an underserved population.

When asked to share what this recognition means to her personally and professionally, Thornton said the most important part was getting the story out there. 

“I was just really pleased to have the story be heard, not for my sake, but for the sake of patients. I think when these stories are told, it can benefit future patients and have an impact on nursing in general.”

“I’m humbled by the idea that something I did just being a nurse is going to potentially impact a lot of other patients and a lot of other nurses and hopefully make things better for both of them,“ Thornton said. “I know that situation made a difference for that patient and that student [who] was with me. It impacted all of us in that moment. But I think it’s going to have a broader impact. That’s everything for me.”

Heather’s Advice to Aspiring Nurses

“The people who are drawn to nursing do tend to be people [who] are more selfless, but I think that we are at a time in healthcare where you absolutely do need to take care of yourself . . . taking care of your own health so that you can be the strongest person you can be, will help you attain whatever goals you have.”

“Remind yourself daily that you do make a difference, that nursing needs you, that healthcare needs you, will give you that strength to persevere so that whatever goals you have for yourself, maybe you’ll feel stronger to achieve those goals.”

Vivian Wants to Make a Difference in the Financial Lives of Nurses

Student loan debt significantly impacts nurses, influencing their financial stability and career choices. It can deter potential candidates from entering the profession, exacerbate nursing shortages and prevent existing nurses from advancing their careers. Obtaining a BSN can cost anywhere from about $35,000 to over $130,000. 

Addressing the rising student loan debt burden of nursing professionals is crucial to ensuring nursing remains an accessible and sustainable career path. Vivian launched this award to drive awareness around this issue. We encourage employers to consider offering tuition reimbursements and loan repayment benefits to support current and future nurses, as they are the backbone of the healthcare system.

From everyone at Vivian Health: Congratulations, Heather! Thank You to everyone who entered. We appreciate everything you all do every day of the year and wish every healthcare professional could have their student loan debt wiped out!

If you’re still searching for the ideal healthcare job, we can help. Our app is designed to help nurses and other healthcare professionals find their perfect job, with pay transparency built in so you can determine if an opportunity supports your financial wellness. Browse jobs on Vivian Health and start pursuing your dream today!

Browse Jobs

Moira K. McGhee

Moira K. McGhee is Vivian’s Senior Editor & All-Around Wordsmith. As part of the Vivian Health team, she strives to help support the empowerment of nurses and other healthcare professionals in their pursuits to find top-notch travel, staff, local contract and per diem positions faster and easier than ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular on Community Hub