Nursing alumna Helen Brinson's service to eastern North Carolina noted
By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services
Helen Brinson at an Eastern AHEC conference this fall. Photo by Cliff Hollis, ECU News Services.
(Feb. 21, 2012)
Building good relationships and partnering with others has driven East Carolina University alumna Helen Brinson’s nursing career.
“We’re all about collaboration and partnering,” she said. “There is no way in eastern North Carolina to do the work that needs to be done without partnering, not only because of funding but other limited resources. We have to all work together to advance the nursing profession.”
As 2012 began, Brinson ended her service as director of nursing education with the Eastern Area Health Education Center, which links universities, community colleges, and health care agencies in providing continuing education, technical assistance and consultation on practice issues. Her absence will be felt across the 23 counties in the AHEC region where she has long advocated for and reached out to nurses in rural areas.
One of her strongest partners has been the ECU College of Nursing, where she worked with every coordinator of the college’s RN to BSN program, a pathway to a bachelor’s degree for registered nurses since the '70s.
“Nurses need a lot of support to take that step to go back to school,” said Brinson, a Beaufort native. “Access to courses is not the biggest barrier sometimes but pre-requisites are. A lot can’t get them at a time when a nurse can take them. More are going online because many work 12-hour shifts, they’ve got a family with little family or financial support.”
While there are fewer barriers because of technology these days, the number of practicing nurses with bachelor’s degrees remains low.
According to the North Carolina Institute of Medicine, 66 percent of newly licensed nurses enter the workforce with associate degrees in nursing and fewer than 15 percent of those achieve a bachelor’s or higher degree in nursing during their careers.
The institute has asked the state’s universities and colleges to produce more baccalaureate prepared nurses to care for the complex health care needs of patients and to expand the pool for future faculty and advanced practice nurses by 2020.
A new program between ECU and four area community colleges is aimed at bolstering those numbers through dual enrollment toward a bachelor’s of nursing degree. And as has often been the case, Brinson supported bringing the program to eastern North Carolina after its successful pilot in the western part of the state.
“She has made significant contributions that have impacted the health of citizens in eastern North Carolina through preparation of nurses and other health care providers,” said Dr. Sylvia Brown, dean of the College of Nursing, who has known Brinson more than 30 years. “She has been a passionate leader for the nursing profession throughout her years of service and has a strong commitment to eastern North Carolina. She is definitely a true ‘Pirate Nurse.’ ”
Making advanced education accessible
Brinson recalled the early years of ECU’s RN to BSN program, a time without cell phones, computers or the internet. Distance education literally meant driving from one location to another, logging miles and books across county roads to introduce nursing programs and opportunities.
Brown, a leader in the college’s online movement, remembered Brinson’s involvement.
“She helped us to develop cohorts to advance the education of nurses through our RN to BSN and MSN options at locations such as Elizabeth City and Morehead City, many years before online delivery was available,” Brown said. “She was an active recruiter for us and made visits to many community colleges and hospitals throughout the region to pave the way for nurses to advance their education. In addition, planning continuing education offerings for nurses to assist them in staying current was an important part of her role.”
Many practitioners know AHEC through its continuing education classes and seminars.
“It’s an integral part of our mission,” Brinson said. “We’re mission-driven, and if health care professionals can’t come to us, we go to them.”
A leader in the state AHEC network, Brinson has pushed efforts to address workforce issues including recruitment and retention strategies to reduce chronic nurse shortages and improve health care in the region.
A successful grant writer and administrator with more than $3 million in grants and contracts for Eastern AHEC, she also has worked to expand clinical sites and find preceptors for nursing students, helping to bridge the gap between practice and academic environments, said Debbie Ramey, associate director of AHEC and a longtime colleague. “People look to her as a resource, whether connecting the dots or connecting with people,” Ramey said. “She’s really good at seeing the big picture and getting people to work together.”
Karen Krupa, a former College of Nursing RN to BSN coordinator, often saw Brinson’s long range planning and people skills. “She can’t think in one year blocks. She’s thinking in five or 10 year blocks of time for funding,” Krupa said. “You can give grants and not be active. But Helen was. She did on-the-road recruitment, set up sites, and made introductions to people and agencies.”
Excited about nursing
Another of Brinson’s passions is school nursing. She has been involved in a Kate B. Reynolds funded project with Dr. Marti Engelke in the College of Nursing and Martha Guttu, retired state school nurse consultant, focused on school nurse case management for children with chronic illness.
“I think nurses in the schools do a couple of things: they promote nursing as a career to the school age population and are a key element in keeping children healthy to stay in school. They reduce absences and help a child progress through the year. It’s such a support, especially in the rural areas where there may not be a pediatrician,” Brinson said. The recommended ratio is one school nurse for 750 children. Some districts have one school nurse for up to 4,000 children.
Ramey said Brinson developed a statewide network of contacts and stayed abreast of emerging issues and state and national trends. “Her ability to be connected – she’s a people person. She’s very much a mentor, a nurturer for students or older professionals, the whole span,” Ramey said. Before AHEC, Brinson worked at Duke University Medical Center, Greenville Hemodialysis, Pitt County Memorial Hospital and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she was a public health nurse for homebound kidney patients in eastern North Carolina.
At retirement, Brinson received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, one of the state’s highest honors. Last year, she was inducted in the ECU College of Nursing’s first class in the Hall of Fame, a who’s who of nursing leaders who have significant contributions in clinical practice, nursing research, leadership and nursing education.
“Relationships and knowing people are so important,” Brinson said. “I’ve been privileged to work with many wonderful health professionals and very lucky to enjoy the work of AHEC and the College of Nursing.”
For now, Brinson is spending more time with her family, especially her 88-year-old mother and her grandchildren, and helping plan her daughter’s spring wedding. Later, she plans to consult in areas of nursing workforce, continuing education and conference management.
Another ECU nursing alumna, Paula Josey, has been appointed Brinson’s successor at Eastern AHEC where she previously worked as assistant director of nursing education.