Chris Clarke, RN, BSN
Senior Vice President
Clinical & Professional Practices
Tennessee Center for Patient Safety
Tennessee Hospital Association
Chris Clarke fell in love with healthcare before she even entered high school. "I was a candy striper when I was 12 or 13," she said of volunteering at the old Nashville General Hospital. "I liked watching what the doctors and nurses did to heal and care for patients, and I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with patients and their families."
Knowing she wanted to pursue healthcare, Clarke wasn't sure what path to take and laughingly admitted she was still weighing her options even after starting nursing school at Vanderbilt. It wasn't that she didn't love nursing, she was just intrigued by so many different areas. An early mentor wisely told her nursing offered access to an array of career options because it provides a broad perspective with the patient at the center.
"I love nursing as a profession because it takes a look at the whole person - the physical, mental, spiritual. It's a holistic view of a person and what matters to them and their definition of health and wellness," she said.
Accepting her diploma from Vanderbilt, it's unlikely she could have envisioned all the places her nursing degree would lead. During her career, Clarke has delivered bedside care, provided health education to patients and the community, overseen a large women's health program and served as president of the Tennessee Center for Nursing. She credits the preceptor on her very first job in the NICU for getting her career started on the right track. "She literally showed me professional nursing in practice," said Clarke. "She's the reason I was a successful nurse because she would push me to take the hard patients."
Clarke added there have been many role models over the years. "I think you need a mentor in every phase of your career. A mentor gives honest feedback and objective insights to help you see what your strengths and your areas of growth should be," she said. "A mentor helps you get out of your comfort zone. That's how you grow."
While Clarke certainly made a difference for the many patients she served in the first half of her career, it is her work through the Tennessee Hospital Association that has impacted countless lives across the state and beyond.
In 2007, Clarke was a driving force behind the establishment of the THA's Tennessee Center for Patient Safety. Under her leadership, the center has collaboratively developed programs and initiatives to promote and share evidence-based practices to improve patient safety and quality.
"I no longer do direct patient care, but I find tremendous enjoyment working on quality improvement and patient safety because I get to lift up hospitals and professionals that are doing improvement work and see the amazing passion and innovation they have to improve the care they deliver," she stated. "A huge part of my work is figuring out how we facilitate hospitals learning from one another, and how we bring them resources and support they might not get otherwise."
Solving that puzzle is one of several challenges to moving evidence-based practices from 'interesting reading' to actual implementation. "New research and innovations come out daily, so keeping up and then getting the best information disseminated to frontline caregivers is challenging," she noted.
One best practice that seems to be a struggle for so many is finding a work/life balance. "As nurses and healthcare professionals, we do a great job of taking care of other people, but we don't do a great job taking care of ourselves," Clarke said. "Sleep is a reservoir-builder ... you can't function without sleep for very long without it having an impact on work, family and sanity."
In the middle of a major home renovation project with her husband Gary, Clarke ruefully admitted even 'down' time has been a bit stressful lately. On the bright side, though, it's just one more reason to spend time outside with her two grown children - Jennifer and Jason - and their families. For pure joy, Clarke said nothing beats chasing after 16-month-old granddaughter Grace and eagerly awaiting baby number two, due to arrive in September.
Encountering the next generation at work is also cause for excitement as Clarke meets young, passionate nurses, physicians and other healthcare professionals across the state. "They are really smart ... really committed. It gives me hope to see them working together as teams and less in the traditional hierarchy model. They understand the importance of coordination, teamwork and communication. They get that it's all about the patient. The next group of professionals are definitely going to make the healthcare delivery system better," Clarke concluded.