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The Power of Courage and Compassion

The Power of Courage and Compassion

“Gernita Lee cares for a patient in the Cardiac Progressive Care Unit at the VCU Medical Center. ”

If you were to sit beside Gernita Lee, RN (B.S. ‘11/Nursing), in class or observe her caring for patients in the Progressive Care Unit at the VCU Medical Center, you might not realize just how extraordinary she is. A graduate student at the VCU School of Nursing, Lee has faced many challenges on her way to a career in nursing. But she has not let family obligations, school and a sudden serious medical condition hold her back.

At a young age, Lee, along with her husband, took custody of her two siblings to remove them from a dangerous family environment. Even with her added responsibilities, Lee became the first in her family to graduate from college. She started by earning a health care technician certificate from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and passing the certified nurse assistant (CNA) certification exam in 2004. Shortly after earning an associate’s degree in applied science from J. Sargeant Reynolds, she passed the NCLEX exam to become a registered nurse. While enrolled at J. Sargeant Reynolds, she worked at the VCU Health System, initially as a care partner on the acute care oncology floor until she received her RN license and was promoted to registered nurse on the acute care medicine floor. The nursing staff at VCUHS pushed her to further her education and set greater goals, according to Lee.

“Two of the nurse practitioners I worked with, Nicole Carter and Renee Seaman, along with Dr. Georgia McIntosh were consistently on me to go back and earn a bachelor’s degree,” Lee said. “They didn’t want me to be afraid to dream and now I try to always encourage others to pursue their passions.”
In 2009, Lee took their advice and enrolled in the VCU School of Nursing’s RN-BS program.

“VCU is conducive to interdisciplinary collaboration between the physicians, doctors, and nurses who all work together as a team instead of simply taking orders,” said Lee, who served as co-chair of VCU Health System’s Medicine Professional Practice Council from 2010 to 2011. “I knew that this was the right school for me.”
Victoria Menzies, Ph.D., RN, PMHCNS-BC, assistant professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, described Lee as “an engaged, enthusiastic and bright student.”

“I noted her ability to work well with a team,” said Menzies, who taught Lee in the Foundations of Professional Nursing I course (NURS-307). “Developing a group presentation with your peers in an academically challenging course has the potential for those with innate leadership skills to stand out. It was apparent that Mrs. Lee was respected by her peers.”

While seeking her undergraduate degree, Lee had a medical emergency that would change her life and lead her to her current career path. In 2010, she experienced a relentless headache that she soon learned was a side effect of Coxsackievirus. This virus is generally a hand, foot, and mouth (HFM) disease that can attack the central nervous system, digestive system and heart. At age 25, Lee suffered from an enlarged heart from the virus and was at risk for heart failure.

With determination and the support of her professors, Lee was able to continue her studies. Even while being treated for six days at the VCU Medical Center, she wrote course papers and completed her assignments so she would not fall behind.
After graduating, Lee worked as a shift resource coordinator on the Progressive Care Unit at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center in Midlothian, Va., where she assisted the medical team in the prevention and treatment of illness, monitored critically ill patients’ response to advanced care practices, and supervised other nurses.

Lee, a mother of three young children, now works for the VCU Health System as a registered nurse on the Cardiac Progressive Care Unit. She said her own experience with heart failure motivated her to work in the cardiology unit, where she provides empathetic care as she monitors blood pressure, assesses pain, and cares for heart failure patients and patients recovering from heart and thoracic surgeries.
The recipient of the Commonwealth Award, a merit-based, partial scholarship given through the VCU Graduate School, Lee is pursuing the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner concentration for her master’s degree. Since starting her graduate education, Lee said her thought process has shifted to a “diagnosis mindset” and she has developed new tools and skills she can apply in her work.

“Before seeking my graduate degree, my mind frame was always, ‘What do I need to tell the physicians?’” she said. “Now I am tasked with planning patient care myself and I’m better equipped to take on leadership and decision-making roles.”
Throughout her educational and professional journey, Lee has pushed the siblings she rescued to succeed and has led by example to show that they too can accomplish anything. Her sister is attending VCU to earn a degree in criminal justice and her brother serves in the U.S. Marines.

Lee, who grew up in public housing in Newport News, Va., plans to use her nursing knowledge to help low-income communities. She said her husband, Sergeant Ishaq Lee, who works for the VCU Police Department, volunteers once a month to visit elementary schools and has seen firsthand a distrust that some low-income community children have in opening up to police officers. Lee has seen this same hesitation in patients who are reluctant to speak with medical professionals, so together they are planning community outreach projects.

Lee said she would also like to work in an inner city emergency room or Richmond’s Fan Free Clinic someday.

“I’m excited to be volunteering in the community because I want to see this new generation form relationships with medical professionals and trust the care they receive,” Lee said. “I’ve never let my past stop me from achieving my goals and I want these children to have the tools they need to live a healthy life so they can pursue their dreams.”

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