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Colleen Conway-Welch

Pushing boundaries and bending the rules: Nursing school dean knew how to get things done
In her long career in nursing, Colleen Conway-Welch figured out sometimes it's good to bend the rules a bit.

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

In the 1980s, with a stigma still surrounding the new AIDS crisis, Nashville had a higher than typical number of cases. Eventually, Vanderbilt would recruit a top AIDS specialist, Dr. Stephen Raffanti, and collaborated with him on a treatment center. But at the time, pushing the university to embrace research and treatment of the disease was controversial, given how much was unknown about HIV and AIDS.

“She stuck up a poster, and everyone knew she was pro HIV research,” Pilon said of Conway-Welch. “She wasn't afraid, politically or clinically, to do that.”

Conway-Welch, who served on an AIDS task force created by President Ronald Reagan, looked the same way at being out in front on issues and problems that might need some rule-bending.

“I really used the philosophy that if you can stand the consequences, take the risk,” she said. And that idea is one of the main things she wants new nurses to learn.

“Look at the worst thing that could happen to you, and then assess if you can manage it,” Conway-Welch said. “Then go ahead. Don't be afraid to take risks.”

She also believes in a nursing workforce that is more broadly educated—something she pushed at Vanderbilt, where she created an accelerated program to bring in new nurses who were educated first in other fields, because, she believed, they brought something extra to their profession.

Conway-Welch also used a little bit of charm, and moved comfortably in the circles of donors and politicians that a dean of a major nursing school must court.

One of the first major donors she approached after being named dean, Nashville businessman Ted Welch, was so charmed that he ended up marrying her. He was also a major Republican fundraiser, and the two were friendly with big-time players in Tennessee and national politics.

Conway-Welch was good at that too. “She could work a room,” Pilon noted. But despite her husband's Republican ties, Conway-Welch worked both sides of the aisle. She had a good relationship with two-term Democratic Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter.

“McWherter was one of her best pals,” Pilon said. “That made her very effective for a long time. She had vision, she understood strategy really well, and understood sources of power.”

In retirement, Conway-Welch is checking off a bucket list that includes a recent trip to Israel and an upcoming trek to Chile. And she's still bending the rules for what everybody says 70-somethings should be doing in retirement. “After that,” she said, “I'm going to skydive.”

David Royse is a freelance writer based in Chicago.