Versie Johnson-Mallard, Ph.D., RN, APRN, FAANP, FAAN, Kent State University College of Nursing Dean, Professor and Henderson Endowed Chair, says that although there are other nurses in her family, it was a high school career day aptitude test that set her down the path of nursing.
“It was for a class assignment. I input my responses to the questions and the algorithm determined nursing might be a good choice for me,” remembered Dean Johnson-Mallard. “I had never interacted with the nurses in my family before, nor had I been in the hospital or taken care of anyone who was ill. I didn’t know what nursing was or even what to expect until I got into the nursing curriculum.”
Upon graduation, Dean Johnson-Mallard accepted a position on a medical-surgical floor. She explained that as a new nurse, the profession was not facing a nursing shortage. There were smaller nurse-to-patient ratios, thus allowing Dean Johnson-Mallard and the other bedside nurses the opportunity to really learn about the disease process.
“We would read articles pertaining to our caseloads and have informative conversations with medical students and residents in the lounge,” she stated. “It was like an informal roundtable because we could really focus on acquiring information specific to caring for our patients.”
Her work on the medical-surgical floor helped Dean Johnson-Mallard gain the experience she needed to feel confident pursuing a specialty area of nursing. She transitioned to working with the Gynecology cancer population, where her work centered around women’s palliative care.
“The hardest part was seeing young mothers,” she began. “I cared for one young mother with ovarian cancer. She had two daughters who would come to the hospital to visit. I knew one day they would come, and their mother wouldn’t be there, or that day would be their last visit with her. Oncology was the hardest experience for me as a nurse.”
When Dean Johnson-Mallard began thinking about graduate school, she knew she wanted to stay in women’s health, but wanted to look at the other continuum. That’s when she found her calling in labor and delivery.
“That was my happy place,” she exclaimed. “Women who came to labor and delivery were pretty much self-care. They wanted to be there, they were excited about their hospitalization and finally being able to hold their babies. That excitement and passion was contagious.”
Many of her responsibilities centered around educating the new mothers about taking care of themselves, their newborns and how to transition back to their home environment. These positive experiences and interactions helped Dean Johnson-Mallard realize she was drawn to the role of primary care and prevention. She went on to become a women’s health nurse practitioner.
“Caring for women and infants was a joy,” recalled Dean Johnson-Mallard. “I had to remain current in evidence-based practice so I could assist in planning patient care and contribute in meaningful ways to the care team. Ultimately, getting the women back to their families and communities was my primary goal.”
Reflecting on her career, Dean Johnson-Mallard expressed at times she struggled to find a balance between being a nurse and a mom herself.
“That was a big transition for me. It was more than I could imagine, being responsible for another life and trying not to lose myself in motherhood,” she said. It was a dynamic process. I didn’t want to lose my career, but I also wanted to embrace my family. I have finally found that work-life balance today.”
Her personal reflections also offered Dean Johnson-Mallard the opportunity to express the ways in which she has seen the nursing profession shift and grow over the years.
“It is nice to see more men entering and embracing the nursing field. That was an outlier when I was coming up,” remarked Dean Johnson-Mallard. “Additionally, nurses today have more opportunities for independent practice. It used to be nurses could only follow a written protocol, but now we are very much a part of the team, even leading teams. It’s fascinating to see all the places a nurse can work – from cruise ships to astronauts. Nurses are in so many spaces and it’s incredible.”
Even before transitioning to the academic side of her career, Dean Johnson-Mallard observed that education had already woven itself throughout her nursing experiences.
“I have always considered myself to be an educator. I educated my patients about their conditions and care before they could return home. I did even more of that as a nurse practitioner,” she declared. “But there is a difference in educating patients and young minds who will one day become part of the next generation of nursing professionals who will provide safe care.”
Having taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Dean Johnson-Mallard stressed the importance of establishing strong communication and active listening skills in her students.
“So many times, nursing students don’t know what to say or talk about with their patients. But once they realize the importance of making a personal connection, it makes sense that this is another area they can use to care for these individuals,” she explained. “Communication and active listening are foundational for providing education in the classroom and at the bedside.”
Throughout her academic career, Dean Johnson-Mallard has published over 100 publications and received millions of dollars in grant funding.
“My research has centered around cancer prevention, specifically with the Human Papilloma Virus, those high-risk strains that contribute to Gynecology cancer,” she explained. “I’ve done a lot of education and prevention in that area.”
Dean Johnson-Mallard’s nursing career has steadily progressed toward nursing leadership.
“I’ve always wanted to make a difference and lead in a space that is second nature to me. It’s something that does not feel like work,” she described. “I’m contributing to building something greater than myself and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”
When Dean Johnson-Mallard first learned about Kent State University College of Nursing, she was drawn in by its mission and values. She knew this institution was dedicated to building students into nurses who would give back by serving their communities.
“At Kent State University College of Nursing, I see our clear mission and the values of belonging and engagement at the heart of everything we do,” she expressed. “The number of individuals who stay in Northeast Ohio after they graduate was something I wasn’t used to coming from Florida where the nursing population is very transient.”
As Dean, she says that she is surrounded by colleagues who are passionate about their specific roles within the college. She enjoys the moments when they seek out her opinion on a matter or share a highlight from their lives. At a higher level, she represents the College of Nursing at meetings with the university President and Provost to discuss matters such as strategic mission and goals.
“My days are filled with people wanting to work together to create something bigger than ourselves. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” Dean Johnson-Mallard remarked. “I have found and continue to find joy in what I do. I’m grateful for where I am. At the end of the day, I always feel like I’ve accomplished something great.”