Donna Lou Edwards is still getting used to the title “nurse of the year.”
The nurse manager in the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University received the honor at a recent banquet for nurses who work in the school’s group medical practice, ECU Physicians. She has been a nurse for 30 years, starting at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, and has worked at ECU since 1995.
“I was very humbled to be chosen,” Edwards said. “I personally knew two of the other candidates and know how hard they work in their areas. I truly felt that my hard work had also been recognized. I hate to call my work, work. It really is part of my life.”
Edwards has a nursing degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was one of the first nurses to work on the medical center’s cardiac surgery program beginning in the 1980s when she worked at the hospital.
“I was privileged to care for the first patient on the first night shift,” she said. “It was a great year with Dr. (W. Randolph) Chitwood, and he taught the nurses about post-surgical cardiac care and held us to a very high standard when caring for the patients. He also allowed us to be critical thinkers and listened to us when we concerned about issues with the patients. We all worked together as one big team back then.”
Edwards now manages the cardiac and vascular surgery outpatient clinic at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU. There, she makes sure patients’ files are complete with lab and test results, clinic notes and a care plan and ensures the clinic operates efficiently.
“She is an exemplary model of organization and efficient process that not only keeps our clinics running efficiently but also with utmost compassion for our patients,” said Chitwood, director of the heart institute and the physician who led the development of the medical center’s heart surgery program in the 1980s. “I can think of no other person as dedicated to the mission of our medical school and who has had such long-standing commitment to the treatment of cardiovascular disease patients in this region.”
Edwards said she’s honored to have been named nurse of the year and to have the opportunity to work with “great professors, physicians and nurses.”
“The knowledge a nurse can gain from working with an academic physicians practice is limitless,” she said. “You just have to be interested enough to learn the disease process of the patients that you care for. I believe in working hard to get it right, giving 110 percent and volunteering your time, also.”
For 10 years, Edwards has worked on Project Health for Leon, a non-profit group that delivers medical care and education to the city of Leon, Nicaragua. She travels to the country for two weeks each year, paying her own way, organizing a surgical clinic that helps people with heart valve disease who otherwise would most likely not receive medical care.
“My first experiences there changed my life and have made me a better person and nurse,” she said.
Closer to home, Edwards is a volunteer organist, pianist and choir director at Salem United Methodist Church in Simpson. She also sings soprano in a three-part women’s group called the Beatitudes. She lives in the village on the family farm of her husband, Kyle. They have been married 28 years and have three sons, Matt, Kaleb and Jacob.
Edwards is a graduate of Pantego High School in Beaufort County and the daughter of Larry and Betty Lou Linton. Her father is a heart-failure and stroke patient. “Being in cardiac care for all these years has helped me and my family cope with Dad’s illness,” she said. “It has been a divine plan.”
Five other nurses, Susan Eubanks, Jandra Thomas, Melissa Ewell, Celia Whitehurst and Cathy Rademacher, were also finalists for the award.