From medical assistant to nurse executive, the two-decade journey of UOPX alumna and instructor Dr. Debra Hunt
As a young woman, Dr. Debra Hunt went to a trade school to become a medical assistant. But even after seven years assisting and managing in Louisville-area physicians’ offices, she lacked the confidence to believe she could ever become a nurse.
When a co-worker suggested she try, she dismissed the idea.
“My exact words were: ‘I can’t do that. It’s too hard,’” Dr. Hunt, now 64, recalled.
Lack of confidence wasn’t the only issue. Dr. Hunt had two small children at the time, one of whom was diagnosed with disabling conditions. Taking on additional responsibilities was “daunting.” And yet, Dr. Hunt continued to think about her future and the benefits of continuing her education. She decided to embrace the challenge, enrolling at a community college in the Louisville, Ky. area.
This marked the beginning of a two-decade long journey of perseverance, leading Dr. Hunt to her current position at Robley Rex Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisville and to a graduate degree at University of Phoenix. She is now a member of the four-person executive leadership team and the project coordinator for construction of a new VA hospital in Louisville.
Having earned a Master of Science in Nursing Leadership from University of Phoenix in 2004, she then earned a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree at another university in 2014. Dr. Hunt has taught online graduate-level courses in nursing for UOPX since 2006, most recently focusing on courses for nurse educators.
Dr. Hunt said that her role as an educator and a leader has helped change her life and the lives of countless others. Thinking back to the days when she felt she couldn’t ever successfully reach these goals, Dr. Hunt recognizes that she had to take charge of her future by making the choice to move forward with her education.
“I would never have thought in the 1980s or the 1990s or even the 2000s, that I’d be here,” she said. “I’m very proud and realize how fortunate I’ve been.”
Dr. Hunt’s personal drive to overcome self-doubt and the challenges of being a working mom while pursuing her education shaped who she is today. Those who work with Dr. Hunt currently have a difficult time believing she ever lacked confidence.
“She knows exactly who she is,” said Stephen Black, director of Robley Rex VA Medical Center. “She knows what she brings to the table. I lean on her.”
That same drive is evident in her current role, as part of a team tackling the construction of a new hospital.
The Robley Rex VA Medical Center provides healthcare for more than 150,000 veterans living in a 35-county area of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana. It has roughly 1,900 employees, led by what the VA calls a “quad,” a four-person team with Black as essentially the chief executive. Dr. Hunt and two colleagues comprise the rest of the quad.
The building the hospital occupies is old. It first opened in 1952 and by the early 2000s, it was clear it needed to be replaced.
When a prior hospital director asked Dr. Hunt, who was then the chief nurse for surgical services, to serve on the planning committee in 2012, she recalls her jaw dropping. It was going to be a huge undertaking. But when the project coordinator left in 2014, and Dr. Hunt, by then the associate director of patient care services and nurse executive for the hospital, was asked to take over, she didn’t hesitate.
Black describes his admiration of Dr. Hunt for her willingness to take on a role that is outside the realm of her position’s traditional comfort zone.
“There’s an aspect of courage there,” Black said. “Her bailiwick was surgery, but she just jumped into it and has learned a ton — about air exchange rates and HVAC and all the rest. With humility, she has just jumped into that.”
As project coordinator, Dr. Hunt is the liaison between all those involved, from the hospital facility management team to the central VA office in Washington, and from the U.S. Corps of Engineers to the design and construction contractors. She has also forged relationships with officials in local and state government.
Black has been the medical center director for less than a year, and says he often relies on Dr. Hunt to help him understand the issues, personalities and details of the complex project. She is vital, and her unique skillset is essential to the many moving pieces staying on track, including the numerous internal and external relationships that need to be built and maintained.
“You can’t just be book smart in this. You have to be able to maneuver the relationships,” he said. “Those same skills are also what make Dr. Hunt a good nurse — being a genuine people-person.
“You can’t be good at nursing without being good with people.”