‘Nurse of the Year’ Talks Nursing Student Challenges, Being a Nurse Leader

Holly Weaver at Indiana University Health Jay Hospital headed the patient food pantry at her hospital by asking patients simple questions. She challenges nurses to give proactive healthcare and says they are "more than just a nurse."
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Published on November 21, 2023
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  • Holly Weaver recently was named a national Nurse of the Year by the American Nurses Association.
  • Weaver helped reduce infant mortality at the small rural hospital where she works.
  • She also started a food pantry program for patients experiencing food insecurity.

Portrait of Holly Weaver, BSN, RNC-OB

Holly Weaver, BSN, RNC-OB

According to the ANA, Weaver serves as a role model to her fellow colleagues and is a trusted advocate for her patients. As the Maternal-Infant Navigator for IU Health, Holly provides quality prenatal care to local mothers in a community that has a high infant mortality rate. Holly’s leadership skills and aptitude for collaborating with her peers on this program led to the selection of Holly as the Pathway Program Director for IU Health.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) recently honored Holly Weaver, BSN, RNC-OB, as its Pathway Nurse of the Year for her commitment to nursing in rural Indiana, her service to patients outside the exam room, and her proven ability to effect change throughout the community.

Weaver wears many hats for her employer: Indiana University (IU) Health Jay Hospital, a tiny but indispensable facility serving rural Portland, Indiana (a population of about 6,000). There, she serves local mothers and babies as a maternal-infant navigator and directs the Pathway to Excellence Program. This program recognizes a healthcare organization's commitment to creating an environment that empowers and engages staff. She also served as a bedside obstetrics nurse for 20 years.

The American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC), a subsidiary of the ANA offering credentialing programs that certify nurses in specialty practice areas, named Weaver its Pathway to Excellence Direct Care Nurse of the Year for modeling exceptional leadership and professionalism with team members and integrating clinical expertise with compassionate patient/resident interactions.

With her deep background in nursing and academic health settings, Weaver is familiar with the challenges facing the nurses of today and tomorrow. She recently spoke with BestColleges to share advice for nursing students, practicing nurses, and hospital leaders as they attempt to navigate the ongoing nursing shortage and the ever-evolving healthcare landscape.

Nurse of the Year: In Service to Families

IU Health Jay is a 25-bed, critical-access hospital that is a key resource to the residents of Portland and surrounding communities.

According to Weaver, the hospital is often short on providers, including in the maternity ward. Three years ago, the hospital lost the final surgeon affiliated with the facility and was forced to shutter its obstetrics department.

"And the fact that we can make an impact like that...asking a question, 'Is this something that you would need help with if we could offer it to you?'"

As a result, Weaver pivoted to the Healthy Beginnings program, which offers prenatal care through 36 weeks of pregnancy. (Most patients now travel to IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, about 45 minutes away, to deliver and then return to Portland for postnatal care.)

Weaver's work as a maternal-infant navigator ensures that prospective mothers under her care have the healthiest pregnancy possible. Weaver said IU Health Jay had the state's highest infant mortality rate in 2018. However, since the Healthy Beginnings program, the hospital has seen a significant decrease.

"I think, number one, my role afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with my patients that I wasn't able to do at the bedside," she said. "If you're helping a patient deliver a baby, you can form a bond with them. But taking care of a patient for nine months and beyond helped me develop a different rapport with them and bring about a certain level of trust."

Listening to Patients, Taking Action

IU Health Jay's employee food pantry was much like pantries at many workplaces. But the hospital's pantry has become unique because of Weaver, nurses, and other workers who share what they have with patients experiencing food insecurity.

Weaver got the idea to allow patients into the employee food pantry after asking patients about their needs. Her supervisor happily allowed it. Several nurses would bring food to stock a small pantry for employees to take whatever they needed.

"In our hospital, we created an employee assistance food pantry where we as employees could utilize the food pantry and take things if we needed it," Weaver said. "But, we were also the ones funding it."

Weaver said patients can feel shame for being food insecure, so she approaches the situation with simplicity.

"I have had patients that they've said to me, 'I am not going to get my food stamps reloaded until next week, and this is saving my family,'" she said. "'I didn't have anything to bring to pack for my kids for their lunch for school this week.'"

SNAP benefits do not cover personal hygiene items, only food. Weaver said it puts hardships into perspective when a patient is excited to receive hand soap, detergent, or other things that are necessary for quality of life.

"And the fact that we can make an impact like that, and it was just through a grant we just asked, or just by asking me, asking a question, 'Is this something that you would need help with if we could offer it to you?'"

Addressing the Shortage: Nursing Students, Faculty, and Hospital Leaders

Weaver said one of the biggest sticking points for nursing students entering the nurse workforce is work-life balance — though perhaps not in the way many nurses conceive of the issue.

"I think younger generations are more focused on the life and not the work part, and there's nothing wrong with that. I just think there has to be more of a give and take," Weaver told BestColleges. "I challenge nursing students to really be sure that they're entering into a career that they're there for the right reasons because nursing does have a lot of flexibility."

Weaver said health systems are struggling to meet nursing students' work-life expectations — an issue that can lead to well-publicized problems with nurse burnout, which in turn exacerbates the ongoing national nurse shortage.

Weaver challenges nursing students to contemplate why they're becoming nurses. Weaver knows there aren't enough students going through nursing school to replace staff once they age out.

"You have to have it in your heart and mind that you are entering this career to be of service to others. I don't come to work to serve myself," Weaver said. "And not all days are great, but I'm here to make a difference in somebody else's life, which ultimately impacts me positively."

Weaver believes not enough seasoned nurses are encouraged to be educators; it can be a lot of hours, lower pay, and responsibility. She said nursing schools could tap on nursing administrators to ask if they have a day to offer as part of their role.

A possible solution to the nursing faculty shortage is making nursing administrators' roles include teaching a class at least one class once a week.

"I mean, it's hard to turn down somebody when they tap you on the shoulder and say, I see something in you that you may not see in yourself," she said. "'I think you'd be a great educator, and I think we need to do more of that.'"

Weaver believes she could answer the shoulder tap as she ages. Still, she feels like nurses are always educating, even outside the classroom.

She says nurses are more than "just nurses." Sometimes, they're teachers, counselors, scientists, and mathematicians.

"I'm all those things, plus being a nurse," she said. "And it's really important to remember that as you enter into this career. But for nursing, we are teaching our patients all the time."

On Being a Nurse Leader, In and Out of the Exam Room

Getting involved and becoming a community leader is first a matter of understanding what your community needs, Weaver said. In Weaver's case, one of those needs was food security, but for others, it may be something completely different.

"As nurses, our care and responsibility is not just in a doctor's office, it's not just in a hospital. It's being out in the community and building those relationships with patients and other community resources."

She encouraged nurses to make connections outside of work by volunteering at blood drives, senior citizen events, child care centers, and food giveaways.

In the context of patient care, she said nurses are afraid to ask questions and listen because they feel like they don't have time — but you have to make the time because patients will share things they've never shared with others if you're listening.

"For one of the patients I had only known a short time… [her doctor] said, 'Holly, I've taken care of this patient her entire life. I didn't know any of that about her,'" Weaver recalled. "And I met her for five minutes, and she told me. So, it's about how you approach patients and really try to build trust and help them understand you're judgment-free and that you truly care about them."

Weaver is excited that health systems are giving nurses a greater say in governance. IU Health Jay has shared governance, allowing nurses to sit at the table alongside administrators and providers to make practice decisions and policies.

She sees more hospitals becoming ANCC Pathway to Excellence and ANCC Magnet Recognition Program designated, meaning the ANCC has designated these hospitals as having shared governance structures and exceptional environments for nurses. She said it positively impacts population health, patient safety, nurse well-being, and nursing job satisfaction.

"By having that multi-professional collaboration, you really get everybody's perspective," Weaver told BestColleges. "So that might be environmental services, maintenance, pharmacy, rehab, and the kitchen. I mean, they all have a part in patient care.

"As nurses, I think it's really important and our responsibility to be out and available to the public so that they can see that there is, because I really believe in proactive healthcare, not just reacting.

"As nurses, that's our responsibility to help teach that."