Worldwide care: Nursing alumna improves health care delivery around the world

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After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master of Science in Nursing in 1987, Stephanie Ferguson, Ph.D., started working right away on newborn screening research for sickle cell disease at the VCU Medical Center.

“We had too many African-American babies dying with sickle cell anemia,” she said of the inherited blood disorder. In Virginia, one in every 325 babies born to African-American parents is affected by sickle cell disease, but if identified early it can be treated to prevent complications that might lead to death.

Ferguson worked for Florence Neal Cooper Smith, former director of the medical center’s Sickle Cell Anemia Awareness Program, gathering evidence to petition for a state-mandated newborn screening protocol in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health. In July 1989, legislation was enacted to make sickle cell testing a mandatory newborn screening in Virginia.

“That has been a major impact that has changed the lives of many people,” Ferguson said. “It is one of my greatest achievements.”

On Oct. 20, the former VCU School of Nursing professor was invited to serve in the Institute of Medicine. Election to the advisory organization is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine, recognizing individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and a commitment to service. While Ferguson’s eventual career as an international health care consultant has given her the opportunity to practice nursing and develop health care policy in 135 countries, it was the experiences she had in Virginia, and particularly at VCU, that led her toward becoming the global leader in nursing and interprofessional education that she is today.

Mentoring success

As a young child with allergic asthma, Ferguson spent a lot of time with Mrs. Wilkerson, the Appomattox Elementary School nurse.

“I thought she was the coolest person in the world,” Ferguson said of the nurse who cared for about 1,000 students in Appomattox County where she grew up. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. I want to take care of that many people at one time.’”

Years later after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Virginia, Ferguson started her career as a clinician at the UVA Health System neonatal intensive care unit. It was there that she discovered her passion for working with women and children.

“People don’t realize how important women and children are to the stability of the community,” she said. “They are our best asset when you think about the future population of the world.”

Ferguson was drawn to the VCU School of Nursing because of the faculty’s commitment to women and children’s health. “VCU was and still is one of the best schools of nursing in the world that teaches you how to be an advanced practice nurse,” she said.

It was this commitment to underserved populations that eventually attracted Ferguson back to VCU in 2009. In addition to teaching, Ferguson was the director of the Community Nursing Organization until last year, where she helped to develop nurse practitioner-led community-based health centers in Richmond’s most underserved neighborhoods. She continues to serve as an affiliate faculty member in the School of Nursing.

People don’t realize how important women and children are to the stability of the community. ... They are our best asset when you think about the future population of the world.

Neighborhood resource

Along with the Richmond City Health District, Ferguson helped launch health resource centers in the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority Communities, where the city has the highest concentration of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection and infant mortality.

The clinics offer family planning resources, checkups, nutrition education and more to underserved neighborhoods in Richmond. Partner organizations such as the Fan Free Clinic and the Peter Paul Development Center offer AIDS testing, family planning, tutor assistance, budget management and community resource information at the centers.

“When you develop a resource center and build collaborative partnerships with people in a community to bring something to their own neighborhood that they feel good about, it’s priceless,” Ferguson said of the resource centers where School of Nursing students provide clinical services. In 2012, the centers served more than 2,000 patients at five locations in the city.

Health for all

In addition to her part-time roles at VCU, Ferguson has worked as the director of two nursing leadership programs with the International Council of Nurses and as a consultant for the World Health Organization since the early 2000s. She brings health resources to neighborhoods around the world through the countries’ ministries of health and empowers health professionals in those communities with the tools they need to sustain those programs. Her efforts are seen in countries such as Myanmar, where she helped to reduced maternal mortality, and in Seychelles, where she bolstered HIV treatment training.

The Virginia native, who lives in Amherst County, plans to use her election to the IOM as another avenue through which to advance universal health coverage, nursing, interprofessional education, and global health.

Ferguson has worked in 53 countries this year alone, establishing practices that help millions of patients around the world, and the experiences she was offered at VCU helped pave the way for her success.

“I fundamentally want to make sure that we have health for all,” she said. “When you have one population that’s marginalized, we’re not healthy.”


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