By Matt Skoufalos
After more than 40 years in the field of nursing, Vangie Dennis has earned an armful of educational achievements: she’s a registered, master’s degreed nurse, a certified perioperative nurse, and a certified medical laser safety officer.
Dennis puts all these talents to work as the executive director for perioperative services at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center and WellStar Atlanta Medical Center South, but ask her how she got to where she is today, and she’ll tell you, “I did it all the hard way.”
“Growing up, the first thing they tell you as a female is to be a teacher [because] you’ll always have a job,” Dennis said. “I wanted to be an artist, and my mom said, ‘You’ll starve.’ ”
But on a visit to the DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Virginia, she fell in love with the nursing uniform.
“I remember looking around and seeing the nurses in their starched white medical uniforms and caps and hose,” Dennis said. Not long after that, she enrolled in Gwinnett Community College to earn her practical nursing license.
Dennis worked her way from nursing assistant to LPN to an associate degree at Georgia State University, and then on to her BSN and MSN degrees. Although she’s worked as a service line coordinator and an ICU nurse, most of her tenure in health care has been in the operating room.
“I can’t think of a time in my life that I’ve ever regretted going into nursing, especially the OR,” Dennis said.
As much as her pursuit of education was driven by a desire to excel in her career, Dennis also said she pushed herself to higher and higher degrees because without the weight of her credentials, she felt like her professional perspective was frequently questioned, and her work double-checked by her peers.
“I didn’t take it offensively, but I said, ‘I am what I am,’ ” Dennis said. “If I want to make a difference in how people respond to me, it means going back to school.”
After earning her BSN, “the world opened up,” Dennis said; that “stamp of credibility” earned respect from her nursing as well as physician colleagues.
“Physicians are scientists by nature,” she said; “to get that respect from your surgeons, they’re going to look at your degree. Unfortunately, it stamps you, whether you want it or not.”
However, even after earning her bachelor’s degrees, Dennis kept having the same experiences at higher levels of employment. That pushed her to earn her MSN and cemented her philosophy that the minimal degree of education any nurse should have is a bachelor’s degree. Today, as the national treasurer of the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), her focus on education and career advancement isn’t central only to her career, but also to those of her peers across the United States.
“My passion is really working directly as an educator, but I couldn’t make a difference until I got into management,” Dennis said. “You make recommendations to your director, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s implemented. [As a director,] I can do better enforcing the practice than I can recommending the practice.”
Moreover, Dennis said, her clinical background helps inform the decisions she makes from a position of leadership while also bridging the worlds of the clinical and the executive.
“You realize it primarily after you become an educator,” she said. “I couldn’t move the needle if I didn’t have a director that wasn’t involved in clinical practice. Being a director that was once an educator, you’re in touch with clinical; you’re not so far removed that you don’t understand where it goes and how it happens.”
“You can be a leader informally, and then you get so much in return out of respect from your surgeons and your patients when you have that baseline knowledge,” Dennis said.
Nurses “have to define ourselves a little better,” Dennis said, and she believes education is the best way to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy path to success. Many nurses work full-time while pursuing degrees, and Dennis was no exception. However, amid a national nursing shortage, and with help from employers, education may be more accessible to today’s nurses than ever before.
“You’ve got grants; you’ve got forgiveness loans,” she said. “My institution pays for you to go back to school, and you can do this very slowly. It’s too accessible today for nurses to not complete their BSN, and there’s some aggressive programs online to bridge them.”
“The generation coming up does have a degree,” Dennis said; “those schools for diploma nurses are going away.”
The advice applies within her own family as well: when Dennis’ daughter, Nicole, finished her BSN, “I told her don’t stop,” Dennis said. Today Nicole has completed her MSN, and has already become a manager within the same hospital where her mother works – a feat that had taken Vangie Dennis another 10 years to achieve in her own career. She’s also keenly aware how difficult the hospital environment can be on staff nurses, both mentally and physically. OR nurses must be technically savvy, clinically capable, and emotionally sturdy to weather long hours of intense and demanding work.
For those reasons, Dennis says it’s “well important to keep my hand on the pulse with the new nurses coming in,” the better to support them while they’re establishing themselves in the field. The atmosphere in a surgical suite can be intense, and she coaches new additions to draw firm boundaries with their coworkers and not to personalize any of the pointed conversations that may originate there.
Of course, after having worked her way to a position of achievement, now Dennis is asked when she’d like to retire. Her children are grown in addition to Nicole, with whom she works, her son Christian is the drummer and music director for singer Maren Morris, and her daughter Kathryn is a schoolteacher in Portland, Oregon. Vangie and her husband, Richard, who works as a CFO for an Atlanta furniture company in Atlanta, also busy themselves with three poodles, Gabriel, Chrissy and Luka and a Himalayan cat named Icarus (Ike).
Dennis teaches a lot, works as a consultant, remains very involved in AORN – and yet, none of those things is a substitute for the work she does in the OR.
“I don’t think we’re made to retire,” she said. “I think if you enjoy what you do, you feel like you’re relevant in what you do, why do you retire? If you enjoy it and you’re relevant, and you get that personal fulfillment, work when you want to work.”
“Self-fulfillment’s always important,” Dennis said. “You’ve got to love what you do, or no matter what happens in the end, you’ll never be happy. I love surgery.”