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A Q&A With the First Man Elected as American Nurses Association President

Analysis  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   October 05, 2018

Ernest Grant hopes to be a role model for a diverse group of future nurses.

This article appears in the September/October 2018 edition of HealthLeaders magazine. 

In January 2019, Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, will become the first man to be president of the American Nurses Association.

Though his election is historic, a nursing career wasn't originally on his radar.  

"In high school, I would have told you—without a doubt—I wanted to be an anesthesiologist and drive a 1968 green Cougar with a red interior. Don't ask me why," Grant laughs.

Grant had the grades, but as the youngest of seven children to a single mother (Grant's father died when he was 5) in a rural North Carolina community, paying for medical school would have been extremely difficult. So Grant's high school guidance counselor came up with an alternative. He suggested Grant go to nursing school, possibly become a nurse anesthetist, and then work his way through medical school that way.

"I took the LPN course, and about six months into that course, I forgot all about being an anesthesiologist," Grant says. "I realized that nursing is my calling and it has been ever since. That's essentially how I got into nursing, and I have never regretted choosing nursing as my profession."

The bulk of Grant's career has been spent at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health in Chapel Hill. He started there as a staff nurse in 1982 and now oversees the center's nationally renowned Burn Prevention Program. Additionally, he is an adjunct faculty member at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing. 

Following are the highlights of his recent conversation with HealthLeaders.

"One of the things about nursing is you're able to meet and be with people when they're most vulnerable. They really depend on you for guidance and direction, and for help and understanding things. For a lot of people, that's when they'll let their guard down, and they'll tell nurses things that perhaps they wouldn't tell their family members or doctors. Just to be able to help someone when they're at their most vulnerable is one of the things I liked about going into nursing. Plus, being there at all stages of life, from the beginning of life to when people transition out of this life as well. Being present for that is something few people have the opportunity to do, so I feel blessed as a nurse to be able to be in those situations."

"What got me into burns [is] we’re called the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, and the burn center is one of the North Carolina Jaycee's state projects that they raised funds for. At the time, I was a member of my [Jaycee] chapter in the mountains, so I had done a lot of fundraising. I figured, 'Well, what better way to show your commitment to an organization than to work at the place where you’re raising funds?' I went in with the intent that I was only going to stay there for a year. 36 years later, I was still there."

"I'm surprised [the election of a man as ANA president] took 122 years for that to happen, but I do feel blessed to have had this opportunity bestowed upon me. I realize that a lot of eyes are going to be on me to see how successful I will be, and I hope I will not disappoint anyone. But I also realize I have the support of a lot of my colleagues—men and women from across the profession that are excited, supportive of my candidacy and my presidency. I'm looking forward to continuing the strong tradition of strong leadership within the nursing profession and continuing from there."

"When I first started, [the number of men in nursing] was probably about somewhere between 4% to 6%. I see myself as being a role model, not only for men in nursing but for minorities to succeed [and] to say, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it as well.' I recognize that fact and will always encourage men and other minorities to seek a career in nursing. I always tell students I never regretted making that choice to go into nursing. It's been one of the best choices that I've made in my life. I mean that truly from the heart because you do see that you can make a change in someone's life every day. In my experience, [I was able to do that] when I was at the bedside, and in my current role, it's working with legislators to help promote or pass safety legislation. And in the leadership role, it's to ensure that nurses have the resources and things that they need in order to do their jobs. I see that also as making a difference."

"Nursing should reflect society. If I’m from another race or nationality, I would hope that somewhere during my hospital stay or my interaction with the healthcare system that I would see someone who resembles me or was from my ethnicity. I think as we remove some of the roadblocks …. encouraging minorities to think of nursing as a profession for them, we will begin to see that change, and subsequently reflecting what society looks like in general."

"Once Congress decides on what they are going to do that is going to replace the ACA—that’s going to determine [how many] people have access to healthcare. As a result of that, are we going to see people continuing to use the emergency room as their primary care physician? Or is something going to be put in place that would allow for more preventative healthcare initiatives? Are we going to have people who don't accept Medicare patients? Where are these patients going to go? As nurses, we need to be prepared to have some alternatives because [these factors] will determine who gets healthcare and who doesn’t, in some sense."

"We need to grow more nursing leaders. We have the Nursing on Boards campaign. We need to get people to embrace that more. It shouldn’t just be the chief nursing officer of the local hospital that’s a nurse on the hospital board. I think they need to get some of the staff nurses or nurses within the community to be involved, and also on other corporation boards. As we build nursing's leadership, then we are going to see some of the changes and drivers of healthcare begin to be more reflective of what we as nurses see is the right thing to do or should be done, as opposed to just sitting back and being reactive."

"I still want to see [the ANA] move forward. My top priorities are to advance the nursing profession in healthcare through fostering higher standards. [I want to encourage nurses to] advocate for issues that impact nursing in public health by being involved at the legislative level, both state and national level. That means actively volunteering to serve on committees: maybe for someone's campaign or serving as experts for a legislator on a healthcare-related issue, and understanding how decisions made in Washington or in state capitals may affect the profession itself. And then, of course, getting young nurses to be more involved within nursing and the ANA as well. They are the future of nursing. One of the things that I hope to do, when I am invited to a community to do a talk, I'd like to arrive there a day early and do a town hall meeting, and meet with those young nurses and find out: Where do they see healthcare going? Where do they see nursing going? What is it that is preventing them from joining the professional organization for nursing?"

Photo credit: (at top) Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN (photo courtesy of Brett Winter Lemon/Getty Images)

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

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