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Leading Care: Kelley R. Bowens and the Veterans Administration

In this interview, Kelley R. Bowens '17 MSN, RN, NE-BC discusses her leadership in advancing nurses and health care through administrative roles. 

She is Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) High Reliability Organization (HRO) Lead in NY, Acting Chief Nurse of Mental Health and Nurse Manager for Critical Care Units at Orlando VA Healthcare System, and Nurse Manager for ICU and Emergency Department at the Wilmington, Del. VA Medical Center. (has been in multiple roles with the Veteran Administration since 2013). Previously, Federal Surveyor, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) 2011-2013.


Kelley R. Bowens

How did you rise to this leadership position?

I started as a critical care nurse and continued to build on my knowledge by adding long term care and outpatient sub-specialties to my knowledge base. When I returned to school for my BSN, I knew my next steps were leadership roles. I was selected for a position at CMS where I traveled extensively and was able to influence healthcare delivery with both leadership and regulatory focus.  When my career, trajectory led me to the VA, I continued in the leadership roles. In short, hard work and the ability to grow, learn and teach, simultaneously.  

Who influenced you?

My clinical Instructor at Helene Fuld School of Nursing was an NP at Cooper University. She mentored me to understand that as nursing was my second career choice, I needed to be a beacon for others who followed me to let them know if could be done-go to nursing school at night, work full time during the day as well as raising my three children with my husband.  She embodied hard work and a determination to be the best RN while always reaching back to help others. 

Why is it important to you? Why are you enthusiastic about your work in this role?

Leadership is important in any role as we have an opportunity to lead change every day in any profession.  As nursing is my passion, I look to influence and empower all nurses to be the best nurse they can be, which includes respecting each other and not being afraid to ask questions.  Each one, teach one.

I’m enthusiastic about my role as am given the opportunity to help guide and improve nursing practice and the delivery of care, which is invigorating. Nursing is evolving and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the spotlight is on nursing and our light was brilliant!! Opportunities now exist to capitalize on this evolution and to advocate for Nurses to be at the “table” where decision are made, at both the corporate and legislative levels.  The profession of nursing, especially critical care nursing has demonstrated that we can carry the heavy load while delivery bedside care with compassion and excellence, now we need to be respected and compensated for vast contributions.

What are the issues you deal with and what’s the biggest challenge in your area?

During COVID, staffing was an issue, both on the inpatient side and Mental Health.  The balancing act of addressing your staff’s fears and concerns about COVID vs our commitment to serve our veterans is always a balancing act.  Additionally, the issues of staff burn-out and the need for self-care is a BIG issue.  At least 10% of the workforce retired abruptly and that placed heavy burdens on those who remained.  Working long hours and sometimes not going home for days or weeks at time related to fears of transmission and quarantine concerns. 

How are you effective in your role? What’s critical to your success in the role?

I’m very effective in my role as a Nurse Leader, as I lead by example.  I’m not going to ask my team to perform a task that I’m not willing or cannot complete myself.  If we are short staffed, I put on scrubs and take patients.  A leader’s willingness to be present and help builds a mutual trust and respect, which builds a team.  Team members may not always get along, but if we respect each other, this goes a long way to building bridges or understanding. 

How does innovation fit into your role as leader?

I welcome and highly encourage innovation in every facet of nursing.   My goal is to always improve our nursing practice to function at the highest limits of our nursing licensure and technology is a big part of healthcare delivery today.  I implemented two new healthcare delivery options at the Wilmington VAMC, Tele-ICU and Tele-stroke, both Nationally Innovative programs to assist staff at improving care delivery in both our ICU and the Emergency Department (ED).

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently on your rise to this position or while in it?

I wish that I had found a mentor.  New nurses, no matter what the age need mentors to help them.  Many times, the nurse manager can really help to impact/guide a novice nurse’s practice.  Because of this I seek to mentor nurses to help them begin navigating their career goals. 

What’s your advice to someone who wants to be a leader in their area of interest?

Learn as much as you can, listen to team members that you respect and find a mentor.  

What is your leadership philosophy?

My philosophy is “Listen with the intent on understanding, not responding.  Leadership is leading by example, but if we don’t listen to our team, who are we leading. IF we listen to our team, be honest as possible with close the loop.  This builds trust, which builds a team. What’s your hope for our profession?

What’s your hope for our profession?

My hope for nursing, is that we continue to get the respect that we have earned during this pandemic.  Nursing needs to me more involved in regulatory decision making at both the state and local levels to influence change in the healthcare delivery model.

What thoughts would you like to add about the effect of the pandemic on your work? Do you foresee changes in the future, including opportunities for nurses where they can have a positive impact?

COVID affected every facet of healthcare delivery and forced all the stakeholders to look at how care is delivered.  The focus from can we hire, to how fast can we get them here. Strategic plans now include contingencies for emergency preparedness.  Lastly, with focus on telemedicine that has increased worldwide, nursing are now entertaining positions that giving them the flexibility to work from home versus being tied to an office desk.  The nursing profession has proven itself during these unprecedented times so I foresee the opportunities should be endless for current and future nurses in this glorious profession.