As Associate Director for Patient Care Services at Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MEDVAMC) in Houston, Kelly Irving, MSN RN, is a key member of the senior executive leadership team. She provides expert knowledge of nursing practice for the state-of-the-art medical facility at MEDVAMC and nine community-based outpatient clinics in southeast Texas. Irving has served the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) since 2005 in a variety of roles, including Skin Risk Nurse Manager, Associate Chief Nurse of Operations and, most recently, as the Deputy Associate Director for Patient Care Services. Irving assumed her current position in 2014.
In honor of national #NursesWeek 2019, Irving describes her role in nursing at VA, explains the benefits of VA nursing careers and why she celebrates nurses.
How long have you served at VA and what is your current role?
I started off by joining the nursing float pool with VA in 2005, so I could try it before I bought it, so to speak. I had done 13 years in the private sector before that. I consulted with VA through the float pool and I learned that it really was a mission.
Four years later, I made the decision that I needed to leave the private sector and went to VA. And that was because there was someone there willing to coach and mentor me and help me reach my potential. I had a great job in the private sector, but I had plateaued. They were never going to see me any differently.
Now, as Associate Director for Patient Care Services, I advocate for resources, oversee nursing competency in their practice and ensure that nurses are practicing to the top of their license. That includes reading a lot of documents and engaging nursing leadership to complete all those tasks. It’s definitely not a one-person show.
Why did you choose a career at VA?
The people who work with VA really have a purpose. And you don’t really get that at other places. We have a mission — to take care of our nation’s heroes.
But I never would’ve come to VA had it not been for some of the VA leaders I had come in contact with. The individual who hired me had communicated with my Chief Nurse in the private sector and said, “Hey, you have someone over there, and I really like the way they work. I’m going to actively recruit this person.”
VA saw more in me and invested in me. I took every opportunity to be challenged to learn more so I could be more successful and give back to our Veterans. It is so rewarding.
What are your reasons for celebrating the nurses you lead and serve with at VA?
VA nurses are phenomenal. We take care of our nation’s heroes and give back to them in many ways that even exceed the care provided in the private sector.
We celebrate the nurses because, on any given day, we can be placed in some difficult situations. We are able to coach and manage those situations to ensure that our Veterans receive the care they are so deserving of. Only VA nurses can do that. We have the experience, we’ve read about it, we’re educated on the different eras of war. We know what to expect from our Veterans when they go through a crisis situation.
I celebrate because VA nurses are committed, dedicated and they show up every day willing to do it all over again.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
Having the opportunity to take care of Veterans who have taken care of us. They have served us in ways we cannot imagine. And since both of my parents are Veterans, it’s especially personal for me.
What story do you most often tell people about your work in Veterans’ nursing care?
MEDVAMC saved my mother’s life. She came to visit me for a summer. She’s a Veteran. I remember being by her bedside in the Emergency Department, and the staff who took care of her were engaged and attentive.
I remember calling the Chief of Surgery. He was in the parking lot going over to the university to teach a class. He said “Kelly, what can I do?” I said, “My mom is here, and I think she needs to go to surgery.”
He said, “I tell you what, I’m turning my car around and I’m coming to see her.” And he did so. She went to surgery a few hours after that. He always said if you need anything call me.
I tell people that because it shows the commitment the staff have to our Veterans. And they would’ve done that for any Veteran. I truly believe that. The care that is given to our Veterans is amazing.
What would you tell other nurses who are interesting in choosing a career at VA?
I would tell them to be open minded and accepting of a career at VA. It is not just a job. It is definitely a career in which you can grow and propel to the highest levels within VA. Give us the opportunity to show you how great we are.
They would join a phenomenal group. We are diversified, and we celebrate diversity. I think we have people representing about 17 countries who work in the building. And so we learn from each other and through the learning we have really formed a unified approach.
What are some other ways that VA supports nurses and nursing careers?
As a nursing leader, I do my best to lead by example. I don’t expect anything from others that I haven’t done or am not willing to do. I participate with and engage the staff. I want them to be open and transparent with me as I am with them.
VA also provides nurses with every educational opportunity to support professional development. We pay for individuals to go to school. Through the National Nursing Education Initiative scholarship, if you decide to go to school, your job will be safe here. We will give you a job.
Those looking at VA careers may know we have great benefits, but the benefits that are not documented on paper are really the things that should be applauded.
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