Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New Soul, New Voice

Vernice Ferguson: A consummate nurse and colleague
After much anticipation and excitement, my new grandchild has arrived (early, at 8 lbs. 3 oz.) and I cannot wait to see who this new person is and will become.

But even as we celebrate his arrival, we often find ourselves pausing to reflect on those who would share our happiness and understand it deeply. We think of those we have lost. Sadly comes the news that nursing has lost a great leader. Vernice Ferguson, a dear friend and nursing colleague, has passed away. In Vernice, we had a unique and strong voice representing nursing, as well as representing diversity and inclusiveness in nursing.

Vernice played a very important role in our School. She served for several years on our Board of Overseers and as a senior fellow, holding the Fagin Family Chair in Cultural Diversity from 1993 to 1997. She was a frequent visitor to our School where she mentored faculty and students and was a speaker at our commencement ceremony.

From 1980 to 1992 she was the assistant chief medical director for nursing programs in the Department of Veterans Affairs. In this position she was responsible for the largest organized nursing service in the world. Prior to this assignment, she was chief of nursing at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

Vernice was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom, the second American nurse so honored. She received eight honorary doctorates and two fellowships -- one in physics, the other in alcohol studies -- and was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing. In 2008, Ms. Ferguson received the FREDDIE Lifetime Achievement Award, considered by many to be “the Oscar of health and medicine.”

In all of her roles, Vernice was the consummate nurse and colleague who was the voice and conscience for inclusion of diversity in every aspect of the nursing mission. She challenged us to envision and create a world that was more ethical and that valued diversity in all its forms and was behind many of our initiatives in diversity that made Penn Nursing a model for the University.

As she told young nurses at the 40th anniversary of the Breakthrough to Nursing Project: “Now you can continue to trailblaze. . . . Ask yourself: What will you bring to the table [as a nurse]? What will you do to help eliminate health disparities?”

I had the honor of knowing Vernice as a friend and colleague for nearly 20 years. I learned a great deal from her leadership and commitment to diversity. And, I have been very grateful for her generosity to our School.

We will all miss her voice. I hope my grandson will find a voice that is just as strong – but, for the sake of my son and daughter-in-law, just not at 3 a.m.! I hope he will defend diversity and inclusiveness and will be intolerant of any intolerance.

I have heard often that when one soul leaves the world, a new one arrives. Perhaps a new nurse leader will be in our midst!

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