Dr. LaDonna Northington's nursing career has been driven by high standards and a love of the profession. This year, that dedication earned her the title of School of Nursing Alumna of the Year.
She was recognized first at the Nursing Alumni Board Meeting on March 8, and she will be recognized again on Friday, April 7 at the annual Nursing Alumni Day at the UMMC Conference Center located in the Jackson Medical Mall.
While Northington is unwaveringly devoted to nursing, the professor of nursing and assistant dean for undergraduate programs is the first to admit that her career was not planned out from day one. In fact, her teenage dream was to be an airline stewardess. Having written off those plans before high school graduation, she earned her nursing pre-requisites at Alcorn State University and enrolled in the University of Mississippi School of Nursing.
Northington began her UMMC career as a staff nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. “It's interesting how your career unfolds,” Northington said. “Today, students come in with a career plan. I didn't have a plan. I was going to be a PICU staff nurse until I died.”
After eight years as a staff nurse, Northington was convinced by a close friend, who worked at the Mississippi State Department of Health, to join her in going back to school to pursue a master's degree. Northington completed her Master of Science in Nursing degree as a Clinical Nurse Specialist with an emphasis in child and adolescent health.
“It was the right decision. I'm glad I stayed here. I worked at night while I was in school, and all my classes were arranged around my work schedule.” she said.
While pursuing her master's degree, there was not a position for a CNS at UMMC. With the encouragement of Dr. Barbara Boss, her faculty and thesis chair, Northington drafted a job description and convinced the director of nursing to pilot the position. Upon graduation, she began working full time in the new position as a CNS in the PICU. She also taught part time for Alcorn and Delta State University during that first year.
After several years as a CNS, Northington decided to pursue a doctorate in nursing at Louisiana State University, joking that she couldn't be outdone by her sister, a pediatrician, and her brother, a lawyer.
In 1998, longtime friend and colleague Dr. Robin Wilkerson, assistant dean of nursing in Oxford, helped convince Northington to transition to a full-time teaching role upon completing her Doctor of Nursing Science. Wilkerson had joined the faculty at the School of Nursing the year before.
Even though she never intended to follow in her parents' teaching footsteps, Northington found her way into academics and loves working with students.
“We were both hesitant to leave [patient care] and move to the academic side, because we were afraid we couldn't make a difference,” Wilkerson said. “It didn't take long to figure out that we could influence patient care through teaching.”
Wilkerson and Northington were undergraduate students at the same time and were in the master's program together. Their careers continued to follow similar trajectories. Wilkerson and Northington often worked together when Northington was the CNS in PICU, and Wilkerson was the nurse manager in pediatric oncology.
“We have taught a lot of the same courses, and we bounce things off of each other all the time,” Wilkerson said. “She gives good advice. You have to really trust someone to be able to do that.”
Northington served as an assistant professor from 1995-2001 and associate professor until 2009, when she was named a full professor. She continued to work clinical positions at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, from staff nurse to nursing manager. She still works at least four days a month as a nursing manager at the Baptist After Hours Pediatric Clinic.
“I always liked working in the clinical setting, because I felt like it made students feel like I was credible,” Northington said. “It was real life experience that I could talk to the students about.”
As for her approach to teaching, Northington admits that she is tough.
“I always felt like there was a way to be firm but not mean. I have high standards because I had high standards set for me. Someone's life is in your hands,” she said.
She hopes her students leave with two thoughts from her: “I tell students all the time, 'If you're making a decision, I hope you hear my voice in your head saying do the right thing,' and 'If you don't like what you're doing, change jobs. Patients deserve a nurse who wants to be a nurse.'”
Northington said she sets high standards for her students because nurses have the responsibility of another person's life in their hands. She is pictured here with students in the accelerated nursing class, Taylor-Alice WcWllams, left, and Courtney Swhoops.
When nominations for Alumnus of the Year were being considered, Northington's high standards played a major role in the discussion, in part because they are evident to almost anyone who crosses her path.
“She is very deserving of this award as evidenced by her passion for teaching and dedication to quality in her tenure as a faculty member,” said Dr. Tina Martin, professor of nursing. She also credits Northington for her dedication to various national and local nursing boards.
Northington had nominated two other colleagues for the award, but the discussion of her list of positive attributes outweighed everyone on the list.
“Her sheer involvement in the profession of nursing, her years of tenure, her professional accomplishments listed on her curriculum vitae including other recognitions and awards she has received over the span of her nursing career are all indications that she is deserving of this honor. She also continues to practice in a local clinic when she is able,” said Dr. Amber Arnold, alumni board president for nursing and CMO special projects coordinator.
Wilkerson can't think of anyone more deserving of this honor. “I can't say enough good things about her. She works as hard as anyone in the world: so intelligent, tremendously caring and always has your back. What people love about LaDonna so much is how much she cares.
“What do you want our student nurses to see? A true professional but also someone who really cares,” said Wilkerson. “When I think of who best represents SON, I think of LaDonna.”