Star Nurse Spotlights: High stakes environment, appreciation for life, showing empathy 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.

Brady Thomas – MedStar Washington Hospital Center


“There are good days and there are not-so-good days,” says Brady about his job as a nurse, “but I go home with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction knowing that I did my best to make a positive impact in someone’s life and helped them when they were at a low point.”

Originally, Brady says, he wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. “But then college happened and I saw in real life what being a doctor is like and thought it might not be for me. I want more connections with my patients and less office time.”

He said he considered the physical therapy and physician’s assistant fields, but nursing gave him everything he was looking for. “Bedside interactions, job security, good pay, flexibility! I love being a nurse.” Besides, he points out, his father was a nurse. “I think I was inspired by my dad.”

Brady, who resides in Arlington, Va., studied at James Madison University (“Go Dukes!”). He has been a nurse for one-and-a-half years.

“My first role was as a student-nurse extern on a neuro IMC at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. This experience helped me both in nursing school and in my career, as I ended up graduating and getting hired on the same unit straight away. I think it did loads for my learning as well as my confidence as a new-to-practice nurse.”

For Brady, the best part of the job is caring for the extreme cases, such as burn and trauma patients, who, he says, some people “can’t oven bear to hear about.” But, he is quick to add, “Someone has to help them, and I want to be the one that says, ‘I can do that.’”

He finds the most challenging part to be the families. “When a grown man comes into the hospital to visit his loved one, and I’m like, ‘Oh nah, I’d be scared to even look at that guy the wrong way,’ but then he instantly breaks down into tears when he sees his mom/wife/girlfriend...That’s usually when I have to take a minute to myself and recompose and think about my family/friends and my own mortality.

“It gives me a new appreciation for life and for the ones that I share it with.”

Heather Robinson – Inova Fairfax Hospital


Heather Robinson 2021 Headshot

Heather was a nurse for 17 years before the pandemic and covid drastically changed the way nurses care for patients.

“We quickly had to find ways to adapt,” she says. “As a profession, we went from nurses to ‘superheroes’ overnight. It is humbling being a health-care worker, and it’s also challenging to prioritize our mental health when we give so much to our patients, especially during a worldwide pandemic.”

Now, Heather says, the challenge is to thrive and find ways to adapt to the new normal. “Taking time for yourself, allowing time to de-stress, regroup and recharge your batteries,” is essential, she says. “Self-care can be easily forgotten, but is crucial to overall wellness.”

For Heather, who lives in Triangle, Va., the best part of nursing is not only caring for each patient, but also caring for the team. “In nursing,” she explains, “teamwork is essential for success, and I am so lucky to be a part of an extraordinary team. Each day in the operating room is like assembling a large jigsaw puzzle, making sure each piece fits perfectly. It is finding the ideal balance to ensure that the patient is safe and will have a successful outcome, while supporting and ensuring the team is well prepared and cared for within their working environment.”

Caring for others has always been a passion of Heather’s. “I knew early on that being a nurse was what I was destined to do,” she says, “from helping attach my Barbie’s head back on after a terrible GI Joe attack as a little girl, to helping my grandmother as she struggled through debilitating health issues” when Heather was a preteen.

“I was incredibly lucky to attend a vocational high school,” Heather recalls, “and in 10th grade my journey began as I took an Introduction to Health Occupations class. That ignited my nursing career.” Heather finished high school as a licensed practical nurse. “Little did I know this was only the beginning, and would leave me hungry for more.”


Right out of Chamberlain College of Nursing, she was accepted into the Operating-Room Nurse Fellowship program at Inova Fairfax Hospital. “I had no idea what I had signed up for, being a new graduate starting in a Level 1 trauma center, but their choosing me was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me.

“It was such a perfect fit for me; 18 years later I still love it just as much as I did the first day I walked in the door.”

Vickie Bands – University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health


Vickie Bands 2021 Headshot

Vicki works in the community with many different populations, including the underserved, the homeless, elderly and children, who often do not have a voice or the knowledge to get the help or services they need.

“The best day,” Vicki says, “is when you give that person a helping hand-up; help them gain a voice and help them start to understand their illness; what they need to do to get well; or even to just manage the illness. Small successes are huge on any given day with many of these folks. Their smiles and, sometimes, their tears of joy, or a simple thank you goes so far.”

From a young age, Vicki was always the caregiver, “always bringing home stray animals or making sure the new kid was included when at school. I also realized early on that I loved science. Meshing the caregiver mentality and the love of science made nursing as a career a good choice.”

Her first role in nursing, 40 years ago, was working in the pediatric intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “It was an incredible learning experience and an emotional maturing experience as well,” she says.

Many people don’t understand what it takes to be a nurse, she says, including “the level of leadership skills, critical thinking skills or the level of intelligence that is needed to be an effective nurse.”.

Vicki, who studied at Towson University and lives in Abingdon, Md., tries to approach each situation with a positive outcome being the goal. “It is not always possible,” she concedes, “but approaching a situation with a positive state of mind can many times turn a negative situation into a positive, or at least an understanding that was not there before.

“I am a firm believer in meeting the person where they are and accepting them for who they are,” she continues. “This can be tough, but can really positively impact a situation. I look people in their eyes and make every attempt to be close to their level. If they are sitting, I sit next to them. I speak in plain language, making sure that I am addressing their health-literacy level—and listen, really listen to them. Most people just want to be heard and understood.”

Vicki, like virtually every nurse, is a staunch advocate of wellness. “People need to take time every day and take care of their mental health in whatever way works for them—meditation, deep breathing, a quiet few minutes with no interruption,” she believes. To improve overall health, she recommends movement in whatever way the person is capable and able to tolerate.  

“Motion is lotion,” she says. “Keep moving.”

Candie Daniels – MedStar Georgetown University Hospital


Candie Daniels 2021 Headshot

“My grandparents,” Candie begins. “My mother. Many aunts and cousins. All nurses. My family has a long history of nursing. I was certain of my vocation in health care.

The best part  of nursing, she says, is the wide range of opportunities. “There’s so much we can do within nursing. Neuroscience critical care nursing is particularly dynamic. I have been so fortunate in my career to exercise my knowledge and skills in several roles: stepdown nurse, clinical manager, clinical educator, school nurse and ICU nurse.”

Her first position as a new graduate nurse was on a mixed neurosurgical ICU and stepdown unit as a stepdown nurse at Georgetown University Hospital.

Each of the roles she has held presented unique challenges, she recalls, “and being a neuroscience ICU nurse has been the most demanding as well as rewarding. The best part of neuroscience nursing is the privilege and honor to provide care for these patients with complex diagnoses during their moments of such vulnerability.”

In Candie’s current position as an ICU clinical educator, the most challenging part of the job is adapting to the limitations of distance-learning while educating and training new nurses, she says. “Nursing skills are best acquired and learned through hands-on learning and practice. The pandemic changed how nursing education is executed and forced our transition to a virtual learning environment, precipitating unforeseen urgencies for innovation and flexibility, as well as a great deal of learning on both sides of the classroom,” Candie says.

Through it all, she has relied on laughter as a sure stress release. “A good laugh is good for the soul,” Candie says. “Laughs bring joy and levity—essential antidotes to the many stressors we all experience professionally and personally.”

Candie, an 18-year veteran of nursing, lives in Annandale, Va., and studied at Georgetown University. She entered college intending to study physical therapy.

“In my third year,” she recalls, “I shadowed a hospice nurse in Philadelphia, and that experience showed me how clinical knowledge is equally important as the simple gesture of holding a patient’s hand. That sparked my interest in nursing and changed my career path: to provide both compassionate and informed care for a patient appealed to me.

“I could no longer ignore the fact that nursing was in my blood.”

Heather Fitzhugh-Boehm – MedStar Health Home Care


Heather Fitzhugh-Boehm 2021 Headshot

In her current job, Heather has the best of two worlds. 

“When I was a child I wanted to be a teacher,” she remembers. “As I got older and cared for my mother with chronic illness, nursing chose me. Once she was gone I knew I was meant to help others. I had a great support system with family and coworkers pushing me from the home-infusion administrative world to follow my dreams of enrolling in a nursing program.”

Now, she continues, “I get to combine my love of education and nursing in my current role as an RN clinical training specialist.”

Heather, who lives in Columbia, Md., has been a nurse for 12 years.  She has an associate’s degree in nursing from Howard Community College; a bachelor’s in nursing from University of Maryland University College; and she is pursuing her master’s in nursing from Western Governors University. Her first role in the field was at St. Agnes Hospital on a medical-surgical unit.

“The best part of my current nursing role,” Heather says, “is that I get to teach others and share my passion for nursing. It is rewarding to watch someone become proficient with technology or a clinical skill. Your clinical skills need to be versatile in home care,” she explains. “Through nursing education, I am continuing to care for the patients.”

At work, Heather puts herself in the shoes of others. “Showing empathy is my personal touch. No matter how busy I am, I try to show my patients and colleagues that I care about them and will always make time to help.”

The most challenging parts of the job have shown themselves regularly throughout the pandemic. “Our education team,” Heather relates, “including myself, was redeployed to the field to care for patients. We remained resilient coming up with new ways to use technology. We were able to bring the providers to the patients through telehealth and e-visits. Covid patients could leave the hospitals to be at home with family sooner by utilizing these resources. We were also able to provide staff education through virtual workshops.

“Though it was a challenge,” Heather cooncludes, “we persevered to support those that needed us the most.

Emily Danforth – Suburban Hospital Johns Hopkins


Emily Danforth 2021 Headshot

“I don’t always have the answers or solutions,” Emily admits, “but when I do and when I can, it is so rewarding to make my patients, who are my neighbors and community members, feel safe and cared for. Solving problems,” she says, and “putting people at ease and making them feel better” is the best part of nursing.

“Nursing is high-stakes,” she continues. “Having patients put their lives in your hands is an immense privilege but also an intense responsibility.” Things are even more strained during the pandemic, she adds. “I have a running worry of bringing covid home to my family. It takes a lot of energy to give 100% to my patients and to keep strict attention to infection control. It’s also hard seeing everyone outside of work in masks all of the time.”

Emily is happy her community has taken so well to the mask mandate. “It makes me feel safer,” she says. “But it also sneaks up on me and I get a sensation like I am always at work.”

Emily has been  a nurse for seven years. She lives in Rockville, Md., and studied at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her  first job in nursing was as an operating room nurse at Baylor St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston. But she did not begin with a career in nursing.

“I was in population and health research,” she relates. “I focused on social inequalities in health and family. I enjoyed my research immensely but wanted to be able to enter the health-care world in a more applied and hands-on way.”

Nursing also introduced a tight community. “I love the diversity of my nursing colleagues,” Emily says, “and very much enjoy organizing team-building, social and cultural sharing activities with my colleagues. I think building social ties with my coworkers strengthens my nursing abilities.

“I believe the closeness and friendship I have with my teammates puts my patients at ease.”

Kim Klein – Inova Ashburn Healthplex


Kim Klein 2021 Headshot

In the many months since the pandemic descended, Kim has concentrated on what the face mask leaves to interpret. “I learned to read eyes and cheek-rises as expressions of emotion,” she says of patients, colleagues and others she encounters. It is among the biggest challenges of the covid era for her. “I miss the smiles and the facial expressions.”

In part she compensates by letting her personality shine. “Even now,” Kim says, “personal touch is everything. Hand-holding, head- or hair-stroking, sharing that touch. It’s a connection to healing, care and trust.”

A 40-year veteran of nursing, Kim values the community of the profession. “I work with an amazing group of nurses, staff and leaders,” she says. “I enjoy sharing knowledge that each of us brings to the care of our patients and each other. We all have special gifts,” she continues. “Mentoring and collaborating with nurses at all levels brings together our unique talents and the opportunity for each of us to grow professionally.”

Kim has been growing in this way since her studies at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W. Va. She lives in nearby Kearneysville.

“I wanted to care for people and help them,” Kim says when asked what drew her to the profession. “Nursing is soulful,” she adds. Ask a nurse,“Can you help me?” and you’ll find out. “It immediately bonds the nurse to the patient.”

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