Star Nurse Spotlights: Having a genuine passion, impacting lives 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.

Abigail Ballard – Inova Fairfax Medical Campus


Abigail was drawn to nursing by her desire to care for others in their time of need. Further, “I was drawn to critical care,” she says, “for the complexity of the patient population and the learning opportunity that every day brings.”

Abigail, who lives in Gainesville, Va., studied at Northern Virginia Community College and began her career as a nursing assistant. She then became an LPN and is now an RN. She has been a nurse for three years.

Her personal touch with patients and colleagues is to always continue smiling, “despite how hard the day might be, and always to keep a positive attitude.”

Abigail says the best part of the job is being able to care for critically ill patients with her “amazing team” and colleagues.

And, she adds, “Knowing that my work makes a difference in the lives of my patients and their families.”

Christopher Fast – MedStar Washington Hospital Center


Christopher Fast 2021 Star Nurse Headshot

Christopher was a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman aboard the USS Caron for six years. That experience led him to nursing as his civilian career. He studied at Prince George’s Community College and is now a 35-year veteran of the profession.

His first role in nursing was as a telemetry cardiac nurse at The George Washington University Hospital. He was there for 10 years.

Christopher, who lives in Coltons Point, Md., describes himself as “easy-going, upbeat.” He says those characteristics along with a good sense of humor allow his personality to shine on the job.

“Nursing is challenging,” Christopher says, and currently the most stressful part of his work is dealing with the covid pandemic.

But there are also uplifting moments. “Having a patient come to the hospital for a heart transplant,” Christopher says, “after having waited years with an LVAD (left ventricular assist device)” is the best part of his job.

Donna Thomas – Inova Mount Vernon Hospital


Donna is a “compassion cart rounder.” Along with some other nurse leaders, she brings around a cart of goodies to her units and uses the opportunity to check in with them to see how their day is going. “Especially after this last year,” she says, “sometimes a kind word and a piece of chocolate makes their day.”

No one needs to be reminded what “this last year” means. “Being pulled to the bedside in the ICU during covid was very challenging,” Donna says, “as well as supporting my nurses with education as so many things changed while we did this difficult work.

“Teaching staff to reuse their N95 as safely as possible was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do professionally,” she continues. “Never thought we would ever have to do something like that.” Now that the covid surge is over, there are new challenges. “We have lost so many nurses in the ICU,” Donna says. “It’s challenging to train so many new and inexperienced nurses in the ICU and ensure they are prepared to give complex care in this environment.”

Donna, however, is an educator. “I get to teach nurses to be better nurses...that’s so satisfying for me.”

A nurse of 14 years’ standing, Donna was educated at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Va. A grandmother and a great aunt were nurses “and inspired me with their knowledge and compassion for others,” she says.

For Donna, self-care is essential to one’s wellness, especially nurses. “It’s so important!” she emphasizes. “Take time to debrief and reflect with colleagues when tough situations happen, and process that grief.”

Eyad Abdel Latif – Novant Health UVA Health System


Nursing is caring, Eyad believes. Indeed, “To serve and care” is the thought that led him to the profession.

Eyad, who lives in Falls Church, Va., is a 22-year veteran of the field. He studied at Johns Hopkins University and his first role as a nurse was in a cardiothoracic ICU.

Eyad admits the most challenging part of his job is stress and fear of burnout. In the face of this, he believes the key to wellness is routinely working out, which helps “in keeping body and soul healthy and grounded.” People in general could improve their overall health, he adds, if they “practice more gratitude and have less anxiety about controlling things beyond their control.”

It is Eyad’s practice to connect with patients to put them at ease during their hospital stay. He often asks them to think of a place that makes them happy. Likewise, he thinks patients should feel comfortable reaching out to their nurses and asking questions about them. For example, Eyad suggests: “What drives you to come to work every day?”

If he was asked, Eyad might answer with the what he says, for him, is the best part of being a nurse:

“The opportunity to impact someone’s life forever on a daily basis.”

Grace Meng – The George Washington University Hospital


The field of nursing is endless with so many career possibilities, Grace says. “It’s dynamic. It really opens a lot of doors in the health-care world.”

Grace, who lives in Arlington, Va., and studied at The George Washington University and Northern Virginia Community College, first joined the profession as a medical-surgical nurse at The George Washington University Hospital, where she still works after six-and-a-half years.

“I’m currently an ICU nurse specializing in cardiac care,” she reports. “It’s always so rewarding to take care of people who are so sick and are at their worst state, and see them get better and eventually transfer out and get discharged.”

But the pandemic has been hard on the entire health-care spectrum, as Grace puts it. “The most challenging thing is when you go home after a long shift,” she confides, “and think about all the people you take care of at work, and knowing that some of them won’t make it (especially with covid-19) regardless of what you do. It’s sometimes hard to decompress and take yourself out of that mind-set.”

That does not stop her from carrying on dutifully. “At work, I try my best to stay calm and upbeat and to always help out my colleagues.”

Resilience, she says, is the most important characteristic of a good nurse: “More positivity, less negativity!”

Kathleen Hallivis – Inova Wound Healing Center - Fairfax


Kathleen Hallivis 2021 Headshot

Kathleen’s  first role in nursing was in a surgical unit at a community hospital.

“I quickly found passion in caring for patients with a complex medical history who suffered from acute and chronic wound healing,” she recalls. “I find it very rewarding to care for patients throughout their plan of care—start to finish—and having the ability to contribute to their healing.

“There is nothing more rewarding” than that, Kathleen continues. “It is also rewarding to be a part of a limb-salvage team with the goal of amputation prevention.”

Having the ability to multitask “and jump in to assist your staff whenever necessary” is crucial, she says. She puts it this way: “One team!”

Kathleen, a nurse of 10 years’ standing, studied at Chamberlain College of Nursing. She lives in Chantilly, Va.

Keeping a positive outlook when explaining care to patients is the most important element of her caregiving, Kathleen says. And, she adds, “Always greet your patients with a smile. Make sure your patients know they are the most important patient.”

Maggie Williams – The George Washington University Hospital


“The best part about being a labor and delivery nurse,” Maggie says, “is knowing that you’re helping patients through one of the most unforgettable and challenging experiences of their lives. Being able to support those patients through one of their most vulnerable times is beyond humbling. No matter how challenging a shift can be, I get to leave work every day knowing that I played a role in that patient’s story.”

Maggie studied at James Madison University and lives in Arlington, Va. She loves the fast-paced environment and challenging atmosphere of labor and delivery. “No two patients’ labors are ever the same,” she points out. “Working with patients on an individual level and supporting their personal birth plan in a safe manner is crucial.” She points out that the team serves as patient advocates as well as collaborative members of a medical unit. “I’m constantly evolving as a nurse to learn how to better provide effective and  supportive patient care,” she says. 

Maggie, who has been a nurse for three years, values getting to know each patient personally. “There are certain patients that you bond with, that you never forget,” she says. “Knowing that I made a lasting difference in their birth experience is what keeps me going as a nurse.”

The challenges of labor and delivery can be very stressful for the nurses, she says. “Knowing that the care I provide will ultimately affect the patient’s delivery is a huge responsibility.” By putting so much effort and emotion into patients, she adds, “it’s sometimes hard for me to have as much energy for my own personal life.” She says her shifts are regularly 12-plus hours.

“I became a nurse in order to make a difference in people’s lives,” Maggie says. “Being able to serve others as a profession is humbling and gratifying.”

Tyeara Phifer – Walter Reed National Military Medical Center


Tyeara Phifer 2021 Headshot

When a patient asks a nurse, “How are you today?” it will force the nurse to stop and think, Tyeara says. As she points out, “This answer doesn’t come from a medical chart, the doctors’ orders or lab results. This question requires a ‘human’ answer. Sometimes nurses get so wrapped up in all of things that have to be accomplished in 12 hours. Asking this question,” she believes, “has the tendency to humanize the interaction.”

Tyeara has been a nurse for 10 years. She lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and studied at the University of Maryland. Her first role as a nurse was as a staff nurse on a medical-surgical oncology ward at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.

She says the best part of her current role is being able to mentor and teach, while still being close enough to the bedside to keep her practice current.

“I wanted to pursue a career that made me feel like I made a difference,” Tyeara says. Nursing is a career “that doesn’t always yield high praise,” she says. The challenges are numerous and often emotional. “Trying to find the balance between allowing yourself to grieve for your patients but also being able to let go,” is crucial, she says.

“It is imperative to have a genuine passion to do the work.”

Tyeara makes sure her personality shows through on the job. She says her personal touch is humor. “It’s free,” she points out, “and a smile rendered or received can make a world of difference.”

Nancy J. Saxon – Walter Reed National Military Medical Center


Nancy Saxon Headshot

Nancy’s first job in nursing 30 years ago was as a staff nurse on a private unit, 250-bed community hospital “with a busy city emergency room.” No matter how hectic the pace, however, she has always been one “to offer the opportunity for extra time to talk with patients once a diagnosis is made and treatment plans are in progress.”

For her, Nancy continues, it is the best part about nursing. “Interacting with patients, listening and ‘dialogue-ing’,” she says, with the goal of discussing care and service options and then obtaining what is decided upon “across a continuum.” This is regardless of what state or country her military patients may live in or are deployed to.

Such compassion, Nancy believes, is the most important characteristic of a good nurse.

Beverly Costantino – MedStar Montgomery Medical Center


Beverly believes the most important characteristic of a good nurse is compassion. Countless patients—seven to 10 per shift, over eight to 10 hours per shift—have no doubt benefited from her own empathy and kindness during her 40 years in the profession.

Over the years, she has come to the belief that the biggest misconception about nursing is how integral nurses are to overall patient health.

Beverly studied at the University of Maryland and lives in Maryland.

Erin Reynolds – Inova Fairfax Medical Campus


Erin Reynolds 2021 Headshot

Hospital environments are complex, Erin says. “We don’t work in isolation. Relying on and working with the whole multiprofessional team is essential to the work we do every day.”

Such collaboration is the best part of nursing for Erin, who has been in the field for nine years,  beginning in a medical ICU in Orlando, Fla. She studied at the University of Pennsylvania and currently lives in Kensington, Md.

“The challenge of fixing or finding solutions—I love working through processes and figuring out the best way to get everyone involved in providing the best care.

“Being transparent, enthusiastic, and keeping things fun is my leadership style,” she continues. “I think it keeps the stress minimal and keeps us looking for the joy in our work, even when dealing with very serious and complex situations.”

The accelerated pace with which new research and information has become available is a rare positive of the pandemic era, Erin says. Yet prioritizing and changing practices at speed can be hard.

In the end,“beyond all the technical skills that we provide,” Erin says, “holding patients’ hands” and other nonverbal communications are things that nurses do to make a difference.

One practice that will always be prioritized is one that patients should not hesitate to quiz their nurses about: “Have you washed your hands!” Erin exclaims. “Infection prevention and shared accountability in making sure we’re all safe is priority for everyone.”

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