Star Nurse Spotlights: Being a bedside warrior, showing resilience and more

The Washington Post in conjunction with the American Nurses Association would like to shine a light on our 2021 Star Nurses. Nominated by patients and peers, and then selected from among hundreds of nominees, these women and men, working on the front lines of health care in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, represent the epitome of skill, professionalism and care. As a part of the recognition of the 2021 Star Nurses we will spotlight nurses 3 days per week leading up to the virtual ceremony where six Nightingale Award winners will be announced on May 26th.

Joanna Cirillo – Virginia Department of Health


Joanna Cirillo 2021 Headshot

When covid-19 arrived, Joanna was uniquely prepared.

Her first job eight years ago was as a research nurse working with veterans of the Gulf War. “We were looking at exposures that soldiers had overseas (chemical weapons, pesticides and others) and comparing health outcomes,” she recalls, which inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology. “After I graduated, I became a communicable disease public health nurse at a local health department in Virginia. I was busy with tuberculosis case investigation and contact tracing, or organizing hepatitis A vaccine clinics in homeless shelters and with other vulnerable populations.”

When the pandemic arrived, Joanna rallied a host of various health department employees to become covid contact tracers. “We had Environmental Health—who usually do restaurant inspections—asking our early cases who they had come in contact with. We also were the first health department in the state to have a walk-up testing clinic, which is important in a city where a lot of people do not have cars. Now I am figuring out what equity looks like in a pandemic vaccine response. How do we reach those without email addresses? How do we get to folks who can't get to us?”

For Joanna, the most challenging part of the job has been preparing her team and community for the unknown. As the health department, “We are the experts in infectious disease mitigation” she points out. “However, with any new virus, our knowledge and recommendations will change and grow over time. A very practical example has been vaccine supply: We didn't know when or if our ultra-cold freezer would arrive, or exactly how much of each vaccine we would get each week. We have to adapt our staff to the influx of weekly cases and contacts.”

Joanna lives in Richmond, Va., and studied at Thomas Jefferson University. “As a student, I volunteered on a mobile van alongside a public health nurse. We partnered with a needle exchange van and I gave immunizations, provided wound care, STI screenings, pregnancy tests or whatever else the patient needed. Public health is so broad—housing, transportation, sometimes just someone to listen. I fell in love with the field right away and knew this was the career for me.”

She thinks most people have an accurate perception of hospital nursing “but not the breadth of work a nurse is capable of doing in society, especially a public health nurse in the time of a pandemic. Public health is all about the health of a whole community, and not just the individual. That is missing from the public domain.”

Adishiwot Ayano – The Residences at Thomas Circle


Adishiwot Ayano 2021 Headshot

“I believe I am a good listener,” Adishiwot says. “I work with the elderly population and enjoy listening to them and treating them as friends. As a leader, I make sure they are respected and heard. I always tell my nurses to ‘put yourself in their shoes.’”

The challenge for her, she says, is addressing the needs of patients, while continuously inspiring and maintaining the morale of the nurses and caregivers who are involved in direct patient care. In the past year, she adds, “Covid increased the stress levels on the entire workforce, families and patients alike.”

Adishiwot, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., studied at the University of the District of Columbia and Aspen University. She has been in nursing for 10 years. A difficult time in her life inspired her to join the field.

“My mother suffered frequent, severe asthma attacks when I was a child,” she recalls. “During each episode, which usually occurred at night, all I could do was hide somewhere and cry, aware that medical assistance could not easily be obtained and that there was nothing much I could do. Witnessing my mom’s suffering far too often was the main reason that pushed me to become a health-care provider, more specifically a nurse.” 

Adishiwot began as a certified nursing assistant at the Residences, where she still works today. Ten years later, she says the best part of her job is serving “as a mentor for my nurses and caregivers and teaching them to always do the right thing” and also “to be an advocate for my residents and make sure their voices are heard.

“Compassion and love,” she says, is what nursing means to her.

Chris Guelcher - Children's National Hospital

Hemostasis RN-BC, MS, PPCNP-BC

Chris Guelcher 2021 Headshot

Chris loves nursing. “I am a huge fan,” she says. “I love the variety of roles and how much nurses can make a difference. I like mentoring and precepting. I enjoy having prospective nurses shadow me so they can experience the breadth of opportunities in nursing.”

Nursing, she says, “is all that I ever wanted to do.”

She continues, “I love being in a profession where I can use my experience and expertise to educate patients and families about complex medical diagnoses and treatments so that they feel comfortable participating in their care. It is just as exciting to work in an environment where I am encouraged to continue to learn and grow professionally.”

Chris, who lives in Bethesda, Md., received her bachelor’s from Georgetown University and a master’s from the University of Maryland. She has been a nurse for 32 years.

Her last clinical role at Georgetown was in hematology/oncology at Children’s National. She relocated but continued to work at pediatric hospitals. “When my husband and I returned to D.C.” she says, “I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else” than Children’s. Since returning, she has worked on the inpatient hematology/oncology unit, the outpatient clinic and as the program coordinator for the Hemophilia Treatment Center.

Chris points out that health care is constantly changing. “It can be difficult to keep up,” she says, “but I am very involved in professional organizations.”

The public does not understand how integral nurses are to patient health, she says. “Nurses are regular people who chose to dedicate their career to helping people. I wrote my college essay about nursing stereotypes. I like to see nurses portrayed as intelligent, curious and compassionate caregivers because that is what I believe it takes to be a good nurse.”

Commander Dana Dones – Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Portsmouth, Va.


Commander Dana Dones 2021 Headshot

For Dana, the best part about her current role is mentoring junior officers and enlisted personnel. “I lead them to the tools that can help them reach their dreams.”

For mentor and mentees alike, however, the covid-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented hardships. “The most challenging part of my job is not having enough staff,” Dana says. “Our organization has had to adjust and supply personnel and resources in support of the vaccination efforts, whether in the hospital or around the U.S.”

Dana, who studied at Hampton University and lives in Portsmouth, Va., has been a nurse for 19 years. Her first role in nursing was as a Navy Nurse Corps officer, working  as a staff nurse on the adult oncology unit at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

“My mother always wanted me to become a nurse,” Dana says. “People would tell me growing up that I had a heart of caring for people. One of the greatest gifts is being able to care for people.”

She likes to get out and see what the needs of the patients and her staff are. “I make a point to get to know my staff and to try to remove any barriers they may face. I ask my nurses, what is their plan for the day in ensuring successful outcomes for their patients? It’s my number one question.”

Lori Howerton Burn – Virginia Hospital Center


Lori Howerton Burn 2021 Headshot

Lori has practiced behavioral health for 37 of her 42 years in nursing. “It has been and still is my need to help others seek a path of optimism and hope,” she says, and “to fulfill their lives with positivity and realize that they can be resilient” in spite of what life has given them.

In her field, Lori says, empathy is essential. “I believe that getting at the same level of understanding of the patient that I’m speaking with is extremely important, if I even have a chance to elevate them to a healing moment,” she says. “You have to understand them by listening first and casting no judgement. I empathize with my patients so that maybe, just maybe, they will start to trust and share their feelings and fears and let me start the healing process so that they can start to believe in their own ability to heal.

“To see a patient who was in despair begin to see hope and change is what it is all about for me!” she continues. “The simple thank you from a patient I have interacted with is truly the best gift any nurse can receive.”

Lori, who lives in Nokesville, Va., earned her bachelor’s at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and her master’s at Catholic University. During her career, she has transitioned from clinical bedside nursing to the administrative side. She says it has allowed her to see the profession with a new lens. 

“It has spoken to my need to be visionary,” she states, “and meet challenges that will enhance the care of patients with mental health issues by being innovative. The challenges are many, but I have been surrounded by the most wonderful clinicians in all my areas that I oversee, thereby allowing all of us to be innovative, optimistic and to be providers of best practices in behavioral health, substance use disorder and palliative care.” 

Being an administrator has also allowed her to practice community mental health as it relates to first responders. “The establishment of a first responder program has been one of my most joyful challenges and, though infant in its development, it will care for our first responders with honor and respect, and bring healing into their lives,” Lori says.

There is another benefit of being an administrator, Lori says. “Watching my colleagues grow in their profession, traversing from novice to expert, is simply wonderful. It means that patients will ultimately receive the best care by them.”

Jacquelyn Patton – Inova Fairfax Medical Campus


Jacquelyn Patton 2021 Headshot

Jacquelyn likes to talk or sing to her patients. “I tell them everything I’m doing and why. I talk about what’s going on outside. I reassure them that they are in a safe place with the best care. I try to do the small things that remind them they have value and dignity—even in a hospital gown.”

There is one question Jacquelyn says patients should always ask their nurse: "Help me understand what is going on."

From the beginning, Jacquelyn wanted to be in emergency nursing or critical care to help the sickest of the sick recover and, conversely, help others pass with dignity.

“I love being a frontline caregiver who sees nuances in a patient’s condition and engages the medical team” to prevent or address potential deterioration, she says.

The demands of emergency care, including shifts of 12 hours or more, are only greater in the pandemic. “It is challenging to have several patients in a short period of time who have devastating diagnoses or poor outcomes,” Jacquelyn says. “The pandemic heightens this because of limited visitation. We nurses are the ones who fill the gap of being there for the dying.

“We are the bedside warriors.”

Jacquelyn lives in Woodbridge, Va. She studied at Liberty University and has  been a nurse for 18 years.

Laura Menez – George Washington University Hospital



Laura, a 33-year veteran of the profession, has always loved being a nurse. She knew from a young age it is what she wanted to be. “I have never thought of any other career path,” she says.

It is a path that began at the National Kidney Institute in Manila, Philippines, where she was a staff nurse after graduating from Silliman University in that country. Today, Laura resides in Alexandria, Va.

Laura has two golden rules that allow her personality to shine at work: “Always treat others as you would like to be treated, and always smile.”

She says the best part of her role is being able to reach out to everyone “as a nurse, educator, collaborator, mentor and support,” even over the past year. “The pandemic has been very challenging,” Laura says, “because loved ones are unable to visit and patients are often alone during these difficult times.”

Laura believes the most important things that people can do to improve overall health are simple. “More sleep, more exercise, less stress,” she recommends.

She never hesitates to ask: “Are you ok? Do you need help?” Because to Laura, nursing means caring.

Thank you to our Presenting Sponsor

Children's National 2021 Logo

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