Twenty-five years before becoming the president of Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Kevin Sowers was “perfectly happy” working as an oncology nurse at Duke University Hospital. Then, Brenda Nevidjon, Duke’s director of oncology nursing at the time, “forced me to think more about my role in nursing beyond being a clinical nurse specialist,” recalls Sowers.
She suddenly promoted Sowers to serve as the unit’s nurse manager, as the previous manager had resigned, and a new inpatient oncology unit was opening in 30 days. “I had no idea what was going on,” he says. However, as he grew in his leadership capacity, he quickly became proficient in case management, advanced practice nursing, finance and new system development at Duke. By the time he joined Johns Hopkins Medicine in 2018, he’d worked for the flagship academic hospital for 32 years — the last eight as president and CEO.
Sowers exemplifies the expansion of nursing roles nationwide. “Becoming a nurse,” says Sowers, “creates opportunities for a lifetime.”
Nurses now serve in areas as diverse as national health care leadership, bioinformatics, research, recruitment, travel, geriatrics, palliative care and home care. The list continues to grow as technology expands and patient care needs change. More nurses are also earning advanced degrees, empowering them to serve as nurse practitioners and in various leadership roles.
Yet the majority of the roughly 3,800 nurses at The Johns Hopkins Hospital remain committed to delivering direct patient care.
Consider Melva Jones, a 41-year veteran psychiatric nurse at the hospital’s Broadway Center for Addiction and nursing coordinator for Meyer 3. She views her work as not only a job but as a “mission from God.”
When Jones sees patients, they’re often demoralized and estranged from their families. Her calm, friendly demeanor assures them that they will be cared for with compassion.
“Nursing for me is an opportunity to minister to those who are broken — whether the brokenness is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual,” Jones says. “My greatest joy comes from seeing the hopeless regain hope, the helpless regain self-efficacy and the physically challenged made whole again.”
Throughout her career, Jones has forged partnerships between community leaders and The Johns Hopkins Hospital to improve access to care for people affected by substance use disorder. She’s helped more than 3,000 patients get started in recovery.
For Ken Seidl, a career in pediatric oncology nursing seemed like a perfect fit. “I loved the idea of building relationships with patients and families,” he says. He worked for three years on the inpatient pediatric bone marrow transplant and oncology unit, but found that the growing administrative demands cut into his cherished clinical time. When an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing suggested that he try research nursing, he took her advice.
Now Seidl helps patients with brain tumors enroll in experimental treatment studies. The nurse says he enjoys learning how immunotherapies work and gleaning insights from neurosurgeons and oncologists.
The paperwork and legalese, however, can be daunting — and not only for patients. “The study protocols — sometimes running as long as 200 pages — are filled with jargon and advanced science,” he says. He tries his best to decode the protocols for patients. One of his biggest challenges is explaining the wide variety of side effects caused by these experimental treatments.
Throughout Johns Hopkins Medicine, other specialized ways of caring for patients are also taking hold.
Angela “Angie” Chang Chiu, for example, is the first international patient care liaison for the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. She says her work unites her passion for patient care with an interest in international affairs. (She worked at the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Taiwan, assisting in the creation of a health policy that would meet the World Health Assembly global targets.) Before coming to Johns Hopkins, Chiu honed her clinical skills as an intensive care unit bedside nurse in Arkansas.
Chiu schedules and manages gastrointestinal care for international patients with complex diseases that are difficult to diagnose or treat, such as short gut syndrome and chronic pancreatitis. She has also established a clinical workflow that’s considered a model for the Johns Hopkins Health System. “The work is never monotonous,” Chiu says, “and it’s rewarding clinically and personally. I see cases I’d likely never see anywhere else.”
Sowers says nursing has become more complex and demanding, not only because of evolving disease states and treatments, but also due to growing awareness of social determinants of health and their impact on health outcomes. He notes that the pressures of maintaining the electronic medical record, ensuring workplace safety and caring for patients with multiple conditions can lead to professional burnout.
When he rounds on the units, Sowers always invites nurses to share their thoughts about the most complex patients they’ve seen that day. Their responses reflect a dedication to finding the best ways to help families as well as patients. It makes him feel proud: “To hear their passion, and to see them show compassion, reminds me why I chose this profession.”