Issue 8 Stories

Nursing: The Heart of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital

Nursing has always been one of the key components of Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Caring Tradition. Quality patient care, innovation and technology, and patient safety and satisfaction all depend on a highly skilled and engaged nursing staff.

But what really keeps our more than 400 nurses working here—many for decades—is the opportunity to work with a caring team of professionals who are focused on their patients.

“When we ask staff why they stay at Sentara Martha Jefferson or what they love about working here, what frequently comes up is the team and the teamwork, and how everybody is willing to jump in to help patients,” says Abby Denby, MSN, RN, NE-BC, director of patient care services. “It’s seeing someone treated with dignity, respect and the Caring Tradition that is so ingrained here—regardless of our being part of a bigger health system. The physicians and nurses are a very tight-knit team.”

Opportunities for nurses to grow in their chosen career include scholarships and other funding for professional certifications and research projects. And through shared governance, nurses are involved in decision-making processes throughout the hospital.

Here we highlight the experiences of three nurses at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

Lila Smith, RN, unit coordinator, Cornell 2

Lila Smith, RN, has worked on Cornell 2—where she cares for oncology, medical-surgical and hospice patients—for almost 16 years. As a unit coordinator, she oversees the unit nurses and ensures that patients get the care they need. While her job these days is primarily administrative, Smith still helps out on the floor whenever she’s needed. “I don’t just sit at a desk,” she says proudly.

Working the night shift gives Smith a chance to provide the one-on-one care she enjoys. While some patients spend much of the night sleeping, others often need extra care and comfort.

“You can give excellent care at nighttime,” she says. “You can rub a patient’s back, give a bath or even just a hug sometimes. Providing that kind of care can be very gratifying.”

Smith especially enjoys working with cancer patients and their loved ones, who often return for repeat visits. “We’re a caring, nurturing unit,” she notes. “We want the hospital to be as nice as it can be for them in a bad situation. We talk to them and get to know them, and we work hard to treat them like family.”

After many years working for State Farm in Charlottesville, Smith came to nursing a little later in life than most nurses—but the opportunity to help and nurture patients made it the right midlife career change for her. After starting her nursing career as a certified nursing assistant, she received a scholarship from the hospital to complete her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree through a joint program with Piedmont Virginia Community College and Old Dominion University.

The small community hospital feel makes Sentara Martha Jefferson an inspiring place to work, according to Smith. She adds that the nurses have many opportunities to provide input into decisions, and work together to accomplish important team goals—like achieving Magnet recognition, a designation for nursing excellence given to only a small percentage of hospitals nationwide. “You can make suggestions, and you feel like you’re being heard,” she explains. “We work together as a close-knit group.”

Smith says her willingness to learn and nurture others in their careers has helped to make her successful in her own career.

“You want people to excel above and beyond what they think they can do,” she says. “Being a unit coordinator means you educate people and nurture them to be the type of nurse who truly represents Sentara Martha Jefferson and the Caring Tradition.”

Joyce Brown, RN, Wendel 2

Joyce Brown, RN, was inspired to become a nurse after watching her father pass away from heart disease when he was only 36. When Joyce, then 8 years old, visited him during his hospital stays, one nurse in particular made an impact on her and her sister, Shirley.

“The nurse took care of us, and she made sure we sat up on the bed with my father,” recalls Brown. “I remember him saying he’d like to see us as nurses someday. Seeing how people can change the lives of others really impacted me.”

Brown and her sister, who is now retired, both took their father’s advice and entered the nursing profession, working side by side for many years.

Having worked on her unit for more than four decades, Brown has become a trusted resource, serving as a preceptor, or mentor, for new nurses. Guiding others comes naturally to her, she says, and it’s especially satisfying when later she sees those nurses working on another unit.

“One of the nurses I used to mentor told me she’s the nurse she is today because she worked with me. That is really gratifying,” she adds.

Brown primarily cares for orthopedic and medical-surgical patients. On a typical day, she works the shift from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., spending her time monitoring patients’ pain levels and supervising them as they get up and start walking again after a procedure. Joint surgery is especially painful, she notes, and many of her orthopedic patients are older people who have had total hip or total knee replacements. She takes great care to monitor these patients and keep physicians updated on their progress.

“I really like talking with and taking care of my patients,” she says.

Brown will retire in March 2019 after 42 years at Sentara Martha Jefferson, bringing countless fond memories with her. She even keeps in touch with some of her former patients. A leukemia patient she cared for in the 1990s, for instance, still sends her a Christmas card every year.

“She tells me how her daughter and grandchild are doing,” Brown says. “What I like most about nursing is meeting different patients. When you work with them and get to meet their families, you see them as the real people they are.”

Ryan Thompson, RN, MSN, unit coordinator, Cornell 1, and nurse navigator, Sentara Heart Arrhythmia Center

When Ryan Thompson, RN, MSN, applied for two positions at Sentara Martha Jefferson, he didn’t imagine he would get both of them, but that’s exactly what happened. Three shifts a week, he’s a unit coordinator on Cornell 1, the hospital’s cardiac monitoring unit. On a typical day, he coordinates admissions and discharges, serves as a resource for nurses, helps communicate with physicians, and answers patient call bells. Then, one day a week, he serves as a nurse navigator at the outpatient Sentara Heart Arrhythmia Center, where he provides personalized assistance and education to heart rhythm patients.

Connected in many ways, Thompson’s two roles provide him an opportunity to ensure that the patients he sees in the hospital have a smooth transition to their outpatient appointments.

“Serving in these two roles has enabled a collaboration that didn’t exist previously,” he says. “These two groups of providers work with the same patients, but to the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who has tried both roles simultaneously. The dual roles have taught me a lot and given me insight into the type of care these patients need. I often see potential issues where someone else might not.”

Thompson says he was drawn to cardiology in particular because of the critical thinking required of a nurse working in that field. Due to the nature of heart disease, many of these patients return to the hospital, and Thompson enjoys the chance to work with them on repeat visits. “You get to see people and educate them on tools they can use for the rest of their lives,” he says. “And if you should happen to see them again, you can reinforce prior teaching and build on that.”

Initially Thompson intended to be a physician, but he decided he could make more of an impact through nursing—although it took him a while to come to that decision.

“I looked at nursing, but it’s not something that guys are known for doing,” he says. “I didn’t have many male role models to follow.”

Then, when his grandmother fell and broke her hip, she told him the male nurses were some of the finest caretakers in the hospital. “She was not one to give out compliments unless they were earned,” Thompson notes.

After receiving a Sentara Martha Jefferson scholarship that helped him go to nursing school, he completed his master’s thesis project in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Since he’s able to stay positive and jovial in times of crisis, Thompson says nursing is a good fit for him. Sentara Martha Jefferson, too, is a good match, combining the atmosphere of a community hospital with highly skilled care.

“For me, Sentara Martha Jefferson is about more than providing high-quality care,” he says. “It’s also about following the Caring Tradition and helping patients have the best possible experience during their stay.”

Sentara Martha Jefferson Supports Nursing Education

Research shows that hospitals with a higher percentage of bachelor-prepared nurses tend to have better patient outcomes. Based on this finding, the Sentara Jefferson leadership team set a goal of having 80 percent of the hospital’s bedside nurses acquire their bachelor of science in nursing degrees by 2020.

Nurses in good standing are eligible for scholarships of up to $20,000—or up to $25,000 for advanced degrees, including master’s and nurse practitioner degrees. In summer 2018, 94 Sentara Martha Jefferson nurses had already graduated with advanced degrees through the scholarship program, and an additional 71 nurses were currently on scholarship. Several nursing assistants also have taken part in the scholarship program to graduate from the associate’s degree/RN program at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“This investment in Sentara Martha Jefferson nurses pays dividends in the lives of our patients, as well as those of our nurses—many of whom wouldn’t have the means to further their education without financial support,” says Johnsa Morris, chief nurse executive for Sentara Martha Jefferson.

Johnsa Morris Steps in as New Sentara Martha Jefferson Nursing Executive

As the recently hired chief nurse executive at Sentara Martha Jefferson, Johnsa Morris, MBA, MHA, BSN, RN, oversees administrative and nursing processes, ensuring that best practices and patient safety are at the forefront of the care the hospital provides. Morris comes to Charlottesville after a 30-year career in nursing at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where her most recent role was director of patient care services.

Morris says she sees many strengths at Sentara Martha Jefferson, including patient safety, educational support for nurses, excellent teamwork and the hospital’s focus on the overall patient experience.

“There’s a really good concept of team at this hospital,” she says. “I think if you would ask most of the people why they stay here, you would hear it’s overwhelmingly because of the people they work with and the communities they serve.”

Morris wants every nurse at Sentara Martha Jefferson engaged in the goal-setting process. “Every nurse is a leader,” she says, “and I want to see every nurse at Sentara Martha Jefferson stepping up and owning a piece of the practice. In that way, we can attain the excellence we desire, and everyone can feel the rewards of our collective efforts.”


Sentara Healthcare, the third largest employer in the state of Virginia, has been recognized as one of America’s Best Employers in 2018 by Forbes. Ranking in the Best Large Employers category, Sentara is No. 177 of 500 companies categorized into 25 industries. Sentara was named alongside only 24 other organizations in the healthcare and social industry group.

Next Story


Speaking Through Pictures

Photovoice Project Brings Attention to Health Disparities in the Community


Joint Replacement Surgery Helps Patients Get Back Into Action

Nursing: The Heart of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital


Speaking Through Pictures

Photovoice Project Brings Attention to Health Disparities in the Community
Presidents Letter

Taking Our Caring Tradition Out Into the Community

The Best Medicine

Stretching the Limitations of Getting Older

Physicians Perspective

Introducing the Sentara Martha Jefferson High-Risk Breast Program

On-Call Advice

What causes insomnia, how is it treated, and can it lead to other problems?

On-Call Advice

What are bone spurs, and how are they treated?

Improve Health Everyday

Staying Active Throughout Your Day

Improve Health Everyday

Preventing Suicide

Improve Health Everyday

Safe Travel During Winter

Clinical Excellence

Automated Pharmacies Help Ensure Medication Safety for Patients

Health Matters

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

La Salud Importa

¿Se ha vacunado contra la gripe?

Aging Well

Treating Depression and Anxiety in Older Adults

Mental Health Concerns Common Among Elderly, but Also Highly Treatable
Active Living

Stretching for the Health of It

Eat Well Live Well

Hitting the Low Note for Sodium

Womens Health

Women and Heart Disease

Pay Attention to What Your Body is Telling You
Sentara in the Community

Community Highlights of 2018


A Promise We Are Willing and Able to Make!


Investing in Our Team

Philanthropic Priorities in Nursing Education, Clinical Education and Professional Development

Making it Fun to Give Back Through Service

As Foundation Board Chair, Bryan Thomas Focuses on Making the Work Enjoyable and Successful

Philanthropy Begins at Home


New Tax Law and Charitable Giving

With the introduction of the tax law this year, you may be wondering how you are impacted.