She first realized that early in her career, as she cared for a patient nearing death.
“She had a Yorkshire terrier she just adored,” Conway-Welch recalled. “She just wanted to see that little dog before she died.”
Dogs, however, weren't allowed in the hospital. But that rule interfered with Conway-Welch's idea of how best to care for her patient, so she found a way around it. She brought the dog up to the fire exit in a small basket, allowing a reunion between the dying woman and the dog she wanted to tell goodbye.
“I realized what I did was really the essence of nursing,” Conway-Welch said. “Afterwards, she was peaceful. That's what nurses do. They take care of the needs of patients . . . not only the physical but the psychological and even the spiritual. We address every aspect of care.”
That would be a theme for Conway-Welch throughout her career—advocating for nurses to do more, to learn more, to push boundaries to make sure patients are cared for.
And that sense of getting things done served Conway-Welch as she went from nursing in the field to a long, successful tenure as dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. Conway-Welch rescued a financially struggling school and used common sense, charm, and some maneuvering around the rules to make a long-lasting difference in the nursing profession, in the care of people in Vanderbilt's home city of Nashville and in nursing education.
“She's not one of these folks who had to ask permission to do something,” said Bonnie Pilon, who was hired by Conway-Welch at Vanderbilt and spent 15 years as senior associate dean at the school. “She just plowed right through. I don't think it was a bad way to go. If you ask permission, you're going to wait a long time.”
Conway-Welch, 72, says, technically, she wasn't so much a rule-breaker as someone who found ways around rules when needed.
“Let's say, I occasionally bent the rules,” she said. “She would see barriers, and she would look at those barriers and see what needed to be done,” said Linda Norman, who followed Conway-Welch as dean at Vanderbilt. “She was quick to find the barrier and then get it changed.”
For her accomplishments in nursing and nursing education Conway-Welch is being inducted into the Health Care Hall of Fame.
Being unafraid to stick her neck out put Conway-Welch on the forefront of emerging healthcare issues—from her ardent support for expanding the scope of practice for nurses so they can provide more primary care to her championing the notion that healthcare clinics for the poor could be financially viable. And it certainly included her early push for AIDS care and research.
Selected career highlights
1984-2013: Professor and dean, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, Nashville
1984-2013: Associate director of patient-care services, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
1983-84: Professor of nursing and clinical professor of medicine, University of Colorado Health Science Center, Denver; interim chair of the division of parent-child nursing and director of the nurse midwifery graduate program, University of Colorado Health Science Center, Denver
1978-80: Associate professor, California State University department of nursing, graduate program in women's health, Long Beach
1976-78: Assistant professor, George Mason University School of Professional Studies, Department of Nursing, Fairfax, Va.
1975-76: Associate dean and project director, nurse midwifery program, Georgetown University School of Nursing, Washington, DC