Five questions with Ballad Health’s Chief Nursing Executive, Lisa Smithgall

Jonathan Roberts • Apr 27, 2020 at 8:57 AM

After losing her father to a heart attack at age 12, Lisa Smithgall knew she wanted to be a nurse, and “be able to assist people who were ill and help them to be well while supporting them and their families during difficult times.” 

Today, Smithgall is Ballad Health’s chief nursing executive — a position she’s held since 2018. Recently, the Press caught up Smithgall to discuss her career, the novel coronavirus pandemic and healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. 

Smithgall briefly: 

Favorite movie: “Mama Mia.” “I’ve watched it so much (my husband rolls his eyes), it’s my feel-good movie. I love the music as it reflects the music when I was younger!”

Favorite TV show: “I don’t really watch TV all that much, but I really enjoy ‘The Voice’ and ‘Modern Family.’”

Favorite local restaurant: “The Mustard Seed” in downtown Kingsport

Coffee or tea: “I am a lifelong tea drinker (hot or cold). I have never acquired the taste for coffee.”

Dogs or cats: “Definitely a dog person! I don’t have one personally, but have 3 grand-dogs.”

What's your favorite part about your job?

Making a difference and supporting others to achieve the best possible healthcare outcomes. In my leadership position, I advocate for the optimal delivery of patient care and support of the patient care nursing team for them to be the best that they can be to make a difference for all people we serve. Every patient story of success makes me personally proud of the work we do and my part in supporting the team that touches the patients and their families.

Did you ever expect to be on the front lines of a pandemic?

Experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic is not something I have ever experienced in my health care career and not something I had ever expected. With the knowledge of the spread of a novel virus that no one has previous exposure to, it is scary to consider the level of infectious spread and impact to our community and personally to me and my family. I have used the scientific knowledge that is available and being updated continually from renowned sources and other healthcare agencies’ experience to inform my personal practice of interaction with others and to direct my healthcare work activities. Several years ago, I was very involved with planning for Ebola and the potential threat of spread, especially to health care workers. With lots of planning and preparation, our healthcare team members were well prepared and this threat never panned out fortunately. The planning and preparation for the Ebola threat has been helpful in our health care readiness for COVID-19.

Are you scared or worried about potential exposure/infection?

The emergence of COVID-19 infection and potential exposure is not the first “new” virus I have experienced in my nursing career even though it is the first pandemic in my career. As a graduating nursing student and early career nurse, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus had recently been identified. The identification of that virus was a catalyst for the use of standard precautions and was frightening to all health care providers as it was new at the time and you couldn’t see the virus and didn’t know who may have it in their blood or body fluids. The use of gloves by healthcare providers when handling body fluids came into play at that time to protect health care personnel. The COVID-19 virus is very similar as it’s a new threat that often can’t be seen as it may spread from individuals who don’t know they’re sick. Unfortunately, unlike HIV which we now know is limited to at-risk groups of individuals, the COVID-19 is more easily spread, can be spread to any and many persons and the risk of potentially serious complications or death may occur. Because many people may have it and not have symptoms or have just minor symptoms, the most frightening thing to me is the disregard many have as to how serious the spread and impact could be to many members of our community and family.

How do you balance personal safety concerns with helping the public in a time like this?

When I embraced my nursing career, I personally pledged to help all people when they needed it. I didn’t sign on to take care of sick people with only some types of illness or disease. As a result, I am committed to assist in all health care activities related to the COVID-19 pandemic and will do all I can to help individuals and provide our health care team members with the processes to safely care for all those impacted by the infection. My family understands that as a nurse, I will be working throughout this pandemic and they support me in this process. I have implemented social distancing and limit my activities to essential work activities and the necessary acquisition of supplies for living. I wear a cloth mask whenever I need to interact with others and social distancing is not able to be maintained.

What would you like people to know about health care workers on the front lines?

Health care team members are committed to caring for patients who are ill. They will show up to care for patients and will also work extra as needed to meet the needs of the patients. Health care team members support their peers, and will do everything they can to help individuals in time of need. The nature and spread of COVID-19 infection has resulted in the limitation of many practices related to visitation and health care team members recognize the significant impact to our patients who may not have the family support that’s typical when hospitalized. Our caring team members not only provide the health care interventions at this time but also provide social and emotional support to their patients in the absence of their families by their side when they are ill and scared. The potential spread of the infection is something our health care team members worry about and stress levels are increased as they meticulously provide their care to patients while ensuring the personal protection to prevent themselves getting the infection. They also worry about carrying the infection (should they be exposed) to their families, which adds more stress to the health care situation. Our health care teams are selfless dedicated individuals who care about all they serve!

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