Star Nurse Spotlights: Having patience, sincerity 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.

Heidi Barber McDonald – Community Hematology-Oncology Practitioners


Heidi Barber McDonald 2021 Headshot

Heidi works primarily with oncology patients receiving chemotherapy in a private physician’s office. “It is a quaint infusion center,” she describes. “The part of my nursing role I enjoy the most is building trust with my patients and providing competent and compassionate care. It is very rewarding helping them through a very difficult time,” she says.

She sees up to 14 or so patients a day, and even in the eight-to-10 -hour shifts, Heidi feels the challenge of having enough time to meet their needs “and do all you would like to do for them.” During the pandemic, she points out, the patients’ loved ones are unable to be with them during treatment. “It is a little harder to incorporate them in the plan of care or develop a rapport with the people your patients care about,” she says.

Heidi has been a nurse for 37 years. She studied at the University of Maryland and lives in Frederick, Md.

“I originally was planning on becoming a physical therapist and changed majors in my third year of college,” she recalls. “Both career paths are caring in nature and are very rewarding; however, I felt my personality traits matched well to nursing.

“I truly care about each patient and enjoy something about their personality,” Heidi continues. “I think they can feel the sincerity and enjoy a lighthearted, positive approach to the care they receive.”

Nurses are caring, hard-working, knowledgeable and devoted team players, Heidi emphasizes. She says even medical TV dramas get that right. However, Heidi does not buy the many intimate relationships with their coworkers these shows portray. “Nor are they remotely wearing high heels.”

Suga Shane Butler – HCA Lewis-Gale Medical Center


Suga Shane Butler 2021 Headshot

“I am who I am,” says Suga, “and I may not be the most conventional nurse, but I promise you this: I am a caring, passionate dedicated person who loves making a difference in people’s lives.”

Nursing, Suga says, “is what I was meant to do. I like to make the patients laugh and feel relaxed. I want them to know I am here for them and I got their back, 100%. I want them to know and feel that while under my care, they are my family and I love ’em. I like to have fun at work but I am very serious about what I do. I encourage my team to do the same.”

Suga has been a nurse for nine years. He lives in Roanoke, Va., and studied at Radford University. He remembers vividly his first job as a charge nurse. “I was two weeks off of orientation,” he recalls. “It was intimidating to say the least, but it shaped me into who I am today and helped me develop real quick.”

But could such on-the-ground learning prepare any nurse for the shock of the pandemic? “There’s no denying the pandemic has brought on dark times,” Suga says. 

Witnessing the mortality rate, he admits, has been especially challenging. “Seeing people pass away right in front of your eyes after you have tried everything, but there just isn't anything else left to do, will hit you real hard.

“It’s probably one of the most hopeless, empty feelings I have ever had in my life,” he relates. “It’s worse for the families, though. They weren’t allowed to see their loved ones. I can’t tell you how many countless hours I have spent on iPads with Facetime, Zoom, etc., while spouses, sons, daughters, grandkids say goodbye to each other. That right there will shake you to the core and humble you real quick,” he says.

Yes, there are challenges every day, Suga admits, and some are far worse than others. “But that’s what keeps me coming back for more, day in and day out.”

“The Interaction with patients,” says Suga. “It’s why I fell in love with nursing. Getting to hear their stories and about their lives is what it’s all about.”

Priscilla Powell – Children’s National Hospital


Priscilla Powell 2021 Headshot

Prior to becoming a nurse, Priscilla worked at a community health-care center in Washington. As a development specialist, she helped raise money for this organization to help provide health care, education and social services regardless of one’s ability to pay.

While there, she says, “I learned of the barriers that the Latino community faced when obtaining care, including the language barrier and immigration status, to name a few.”

Then Priscilla changed gears.

“I decided that instead of fundraising for these services, I wanted to provide care as a nurse and help empower the Latino community” and those of other cultural backgrounds. “Regardless of where they are from, economic and immigration status,” she says, “they deserve the same care as everyone else.  This was the start of my nursing career.”

Priscilla has now been a nurse for eight years after studying at the University of the District of Columbia. While in nursing school, she participated in the Children’s National Hospital nursing student summer internship program.  She transitioned from childcare technician to patient care technician, and after graduating from nursing school she became a registered nurse. 

As a Latina herself and as a pediatric oncology nurse, “I am fortunate to be a representative, a voice, an advocate, a bedside nurse, and an educator to our culturally diverse patient population,” Priscilla says.  “One of the roles that means the most to me is being a Patient Advocate Education Resource (PEAR).  As a PEAR, I provide education to our newly diagnosed patients and families from all different cultural backgrounds on how to safely be home after discharge.” 

The pandemic forced strict visitor policies that limited group gatherings for education classes. “So I made sure that regardless of our limitations on in-person teaching, all families received proper education,” she says. For example, making pictorial fever guidelines for parents who could not read was crucial, “since a fever in an oncology patient is a life-threatening event,” she says.

Many Spanish-speaking families request a nurse who speaks the language to ease that barrier during an admission. “I am glad to be able to be the nurse to care for Spanish-speaking patients and families!” Priscilla says.

For Priscilla, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., the children in the Hematology, Oncology, Blood Marrow Transplant unit, where she has spent her career, are the best part of being a nurse. “Their resilience, strength, courage and their smiles during the most difficult times speaks a thousand words,” she says. “Seeing parents with their child overcome the unthinkable is why I am encouraged to continue in this field.”

Maria Rafalco – Inova Fairfax Medical Campus


Maria Rafalco 2021 Headshot

Nursing is a calling that Maria never anticipated and one that she received later in life. “My background is in business (outside sales, marketing and finance),” she says. “I have also been a stay-at-home mom.  Before I had my daughter, I recognized my interest in the health professions and took classes to pursue a career in physical therapy, but never considered nursing.”

Throughout her 30’s, however, Maria experienced her own health issues. “That gave me the firsthand experience of trauma, chronic pain, loss, as well as the anxiety and grief that accompanies these things and the lack of control with health issues.” While she experienced excellent care at times, she says, other, less fortunate experiences helped her realize the importance of advocacy in health care.

“Through these difficult years, I was extremely humbled and changed fundamentally as a person mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Maria says. “I had a new compassion and empathy for others accompanied by a love for medicine, and I kept having feelings that, even though nursing is such a non-glamorous and difficult profession, I was supposed to do that. God had given me a gift,” she says, and that gift was to love and serve others.

“I made efforts (volunteering, more classes, getting certified as a nurse’s aid) to validate this ‘calling,’” she continues,” thinking that I would realize I made a mistake. However, everything I did just reinforced those feelings that this was where I was meant to be. Now I’m here, and every time I leave work (even if I am in tears after a rough day), I still have that same confidence that I am where I am supposed to be.”

Maria, who lives in Herndon, Va., has been a nurse for a year and a half. She has been studying at Northern Virginia Community College and works on an acute pulmonary unit. “I never thought I would do pulmonary,” she says, “but much like my feelings of entering nursing, when I saw the post I felt like I was supposed to take that job. It was the only position I interviewed for, and ironically, six months into the job, we were hit with a respiratory virus pandemic.”

Maria loves being able to be there for people “and to be their advocate when they are at their most vulnerable,” she says. “In addition to being an acute pulmonary unit, we are also a designated hospice unit, so we are the ones to provide support for the family and care for an individual in their final moments. It is an incredible honor and makes for very meaningful work.

“I also LOVE my teammates,” Maria adds. “We have a very high acuity and very demanding unit, and it is hands down the most team-oriented environment I have ever worked in. Every one of my teammates is a star nurse, in my opinion.”

Beth Sullivan – Medstar Washington Hospital Center


Beth Sullivan 2021 Headshot

Beth always wanted to make a difference and care for people during their times of need.

“I am an NP,” she says, “and care for patients pre- and postoperatively who are undergoing cardiac surgery. I love this patient population and I love helping them through a scary time.” On any given eight-to-10 hour shift, Beth may be caring for up to 10 patients.

Beth has been a nurse for 40 years. She lives in McLean, Va., and studied at the University of Virginia. Her first role in nursing was as a staff nurse on a step-down cardiac surgery floor at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Beth finds one of the most challenging parts of being a nurse is connecting to and motivating patients who are unable or unwilling to help in their own recovery.

But she describes a personal touch that helps her through.

“Empathy,” she says. “My ability to get to know my patient and convey caring.”

Melanie Lee – Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center


Melanie Lee 2021 Headshot

Melanie was in awe. “When I was 13 years old,” she remembers, “my grandfather became ill and spent weeks in the hospital. The nurses were so kind and compassionate, they really helped me and my family in our time of need. I was in awe of them.” That's when she knew she wanted to help others in that same way.

“It’s not every day that you get to make a difference in someone’s life, but in nursing, you can,” she adds.

Melanie’s first role in nursing after studying at Notre Dame of Maryland University was as a patient care tech. Eighteen years later, she is working at the same hospital and unit as she was then.

“I excel in relating to my patients by individualizing my care to meet their needs,” Melanie says. “My personal touch is empathy and humor. I mix in light humor when appropriate to lift their spirits and make them smile.” She says the best part about her role is working with her pediatric team of nurses, providers, technicians and child- life specialists.

Melanie, who lives in Arnold, Md., thinks that every patient interested in their own recovery should ask their nurse a question:

“‘What does great look like to you?’” she suggests.

Chrisantus Asong – MedStar Washington Hospital Center


Nursing is caring, as Chrisantus defines it. In fact, he says, “the desire to care for people” is what drew him to the profession.

Chrisantus, a nurse of seven years’ standing, lives in Springdale, Md., and studied at Prince George’s Community College and Grand Canyon University. His first nursing role was as a charge nurse at Washington Center for Aging Services.

Personal touch is an important element in nursing, and Chrisantus allows his personality to shine with his ability “to put a smile on the faces of my patients during their difficult moments.”

There are challenges. “Seeing my patient deteriorating despite all my efforts and that of the other team members to make them get better” is the toughest, as many will agree. He ads, “The pandemic led to staff shortages as many of our team members were affected.”

The best part of nursing? “Seeing my surgical patients recover speedily after their procedure.” In fact, Chrisantus thinks all improving patients should ask their nurse this lighthearted question:

“Are you taking good care of yourself, too?”

Rabelle Siddiki – Inova Loudoun Hospital


Rabelle Siddiki 2021 Headshot

“I am so happy that the nursing field and I found each other,” Rabelle says. It was a long journey.

Following studies in political science, history and prelaw, she took a job in management consulting after college. Then, in 2008, the market crashed and the company she was working for went bankrupt.

“I was 24 years old and had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go,” Rabelle recalls. “All I wanted was a job. I saw that the only fields that didn’t seem to lose jobs in the market crash were IT and health care.”

She took an IT class “and was bored out of my mind.” Health care seemed more interesting, “but I knew I didn't want to do anything that involved blood or bodily fluid or touching a person.” Rabelle felt that with her consulting and administrative background, health-care administration seemed a better fit.

She took a job in a doctor’s office in the reception, billing and coding area, “and hated it.” She found it tedious. “Strangely,” she recalls, “I discovered I was getting curious about what the doctors, nurses and medical technicians did. I then learned about a profession called physician assistant and that really sparked my interest.”

Ultimately her path led to nursing. Rabelle, who lives in Herndon, Va., enrolled in Shenandoah University’s accelerated second-degree BSN program and has now been a nurse for six years.

Her first nursing job was in a specialized ICU. She quickly moved into her current position on the progressive care unit at Inova Loudoun Hospital where she feels “a sense of home and belonging.” She says everyone in the unit “sees themselves as a family and wants its members to succeed and be happy.”

Being a nurse has let Rabelle grow, she says. “It has taught me to have patience, to never take things for granted, to see the humor in some scary and crazy situations, and most importantly, to stand up to fear and not run or hide from it.”

Rabelle reminisces. “I wanted to be an author, a journalist, a human-rights lawyer. Later,” she is happy to say, “my dreams changed.”

Courtney Amal – George Washington University Hospital


Courtney Amal 2021 Headshot

Courtney wasn’t particularly drawn to nursing. “Rather, I was more determined to develop a better understanding of anatomy and physiology,” she recalls.

But during clinical rotations in nursing school at East Carolina University, she had brief exposures to critical care areas. “I was inspired as I watched this select group of nurses as they worked together to care for the sickest patient population and save lives,” Courtney says. “It was then that I aspired to work in an intensive care unit.”

Fourteen years later, she is a member of the “distinguished” Rapid Response Team at The George Washington University Hospital, which she terms an honor and a privilege.

“This role has allowed me to work alongside the most stellar group of nurses I’ve ever met during the most challenging time in our careers,” she describes. “We have a supportive manager who encourages us to thrive and achieve our individual professional personality. These beautiful people have become my family and I am a better human being as a result of their strength and compassion over this past year.

“We have learned, laughed, cried and grown together,” Courtney continues. “Nursing practice (and humanity) rely on these connections as a foundation to support healing in our society.”

Courtney focuses on practicing her skills in such a way that she hopes sets the tone for those around her.

“For me,” she explains, “this means keeping calm, assessing the situation and the energy at the bedside, and formulating a careful and thoughtful response. I make a conscious effort to have an awareness of my own emotional state and use my verbal and nonverbal communication deliberately, efficiently and effectively so as to create a space that allows collaboration.”

Courtney, who lives in Rockville, Md., believes she has an awareness of her impact, “and I wholeheartedly believe in treating others in the way that I would want to be treated.”

The most challenging part of the job for Courtney is seeing and experiencing human suffering. “Covid took that to another level,” she says. “Nurses have a reputation for implementing strategies to alleviate pain, suffering, promote healing, and to support grief. The reality is that we have all witnessed so much death. It’s not only our patients, it’s our own loved ones. I lost a cousin to covid and then I went numb and felt overwhelmed with sorrow. I still haven’t fully processed all of my grief from this past year.”

Courtney offers simple suggestions for maintaining wellness in this time of pandemic. “Go outside,” Courtney urges. “Breathe fresh air. Soak up the sun. Listen to the birds chirping. Smell the flowers. Connect with nature, in any way that feels right, and with those people who you love as often as possible.

“And sleep.”

Thank you to our Presenting Sponsor

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