Nashvillian of the Year 

Colleen Conway-Welch, Dean of Vanderbilt University Nursing School

Colleen Conway-Welch, Dean of Vanderbilt University Nursing School

By Bruce Dobie, photography by Susan Adcock

Colleen Conway-Welch, at the age of 22, didn’t appear afraid of anything. When she contemplated what to do with her life, she thought adventurously. When she considered where to go, she held the world in the palm of her hand.

Armed with an undergraduate nursing degree from Georgetown University and several months’ experience working in a Washington, D.C., hospital, she was “looking for excitement and for experiences that were different.” It was the mid-1960s, and three options climbed to the top of her list. The first was to work as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps in a M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam. The second was to work as a flight attendant for Pan-Am Airlines. The last was to head to Hawaii and see what turned up.

The army accepted her. The flight attendant job was there for the asking. But she went to Hawaii. “You know, I always thought about what would have happened, had I taken either of those other two options,” she muses.

The army accepted her. The flight attendant job was there for the asking. But she went to Hawaii. “You know, I always thought about what would have happened, had I taken either of those other two options,” she muses.

At the wheel of her very used—but much beloved—Austin-Healy sports car, painted a British racing green, the youthful, attractive Conway-Welch must have cut a dashing figure as she raced across the North American continent with the top down and the sun in her face. If there’s something cinematically adventuresome about the image—and much of Conway-Welch’s life certainly seems that way—then the fable only grows more fantastic after her arrival on the Pacific Ocean isle.

Prior to making the trip, Conway-Welch had obtained a nursing license allowing her to practice in Hawaii. Immediately upon landing in Oahu, she went to Queens Hospital in Honolulu. There, things began falling into place with an incredible swiftness. A nursing position had just opened in the labor and delivery unit, which was her first choice. As well, two other nurses had a spare room in their apartment and asked her to be their roommate. “So now I had a job and a place to stay on my first day in Hawaii.” But then, while getting dressed that first evening to see Waikiki, a young man dropped by to take out the woman who had just vacated the apartment. “Would you like to go instead?” the man asked Conway-Welch.

“It was lovely, dinner and dancing, that sort of thing,” she remembers.

“What the whole experience really told me,” Conway-Welch continues, with nary a hint of doubt in her voice, “is that there are few risks you can take where the consequences are truly, truly bad,” she says. “And the other thing was that being a nurse meant you could do anything and go anywhere.”

Being a nurse—albeit an ambitious one with an unrivaled passion for women’s and infant’s health issues—has made Colleen Conway-Welch a powerful, influential figure. A relative newcomer to Nashville—she arrived here in 1984—she is perhaps most well known for having plucked the Vanderbilt University Nursing School back from a near-death experience and turning it into one of the nation’s premier nursing educational facilities. As well, Conway-Welch is deeply involved in countless local agencies that assist either women or infants before, during or after childbirth. More broadly, her fingerprints can be found on a number of local, community-based health centers engaged in providing health care to those who cannot afford it. Finally, she is a serious player in various national initiatives related to health and wellness; most recently, she has emerged as a key figure in determining responses to acts of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. For all these reasons, she is the Nashville Scene’s 2003 Nashvillian of the Year.

The story of Conway-Welch’s lifework, as she herself tells it, begins in her birthplace, a small town in Iowa, in a solid, caring family where her father, who was in road construction, was forced to move a lot. “I was in 17 schools by the time I was in the seventh grade,” she says. Of the big influences in her life, Conway-Welch often speaks of her father. “He put all his brothers and sisters through graduate school, but he himself didn’t have a high school degree. My father always instilled in me the value of an education and that you always needed to be able to support yourself.”

Beginning in the fourth grade, Conway-Welch says she was consumed by a Nancy Drew-like series of books, in which the protagonist, Cherry Ames, was a nurse. “There was no decision, ever, for me about what to be. I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

Able to attend nursing school at Georgetown on a scholarship offered by her father’s company, she then embarked for Hawaii, which turned out to be only the beginning of her professional odyssey. From Hawaii, her plan “was next to go to Kuala Lumpur, but I ended up going to San Francisco instead.” It was 1967, and she lived a few blocks from Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of the hallucinogen-fueled flower child movement. “It was absolutely crazy. If I ever had any interest in doing drugs, that was quickly dealt with.” Her duties as an emergency room nurse meant she handled countless drug overdose cases, “frequently overdosed parents coming in with a little child. The kids would just sit there. You know, you can do what you want to ruin your life, but watching those people ruin their kids’ lives is what hurt the most.”

Soon, she was driving back to D.C. to get a master’s in nursing at Catholic University of America. Graduating in 1969, she then moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where she became a certified nurse midwife at the Catholic Maternity Institute, working 24 hours on, 24 hours off. The experience involved delivering babies—and making home visits to newborns—in homes with dirt floors and no electricity or plumbing; it also cemented her interest in labor and delivery issues. “There’s a relationship between a patient in labor and a nurse that’s unique. If the relationship is good, then the need for medication is frequently less. To establish that relationship with a perfect stranger when they’re in pain is quite daunting. I loved it.”

From there, Conway-Welch was off to California, for a stint at the L.A. County Women’s Hospital. Then she headed to New York City in 1970 to begin a doctoral program at New York University, from which she graduated with the Ph.D. in 1973. Once she had the so-called “terminal” degree in hand, her career was off and running.

For a decade, Conway-Welch held various professorships and deanships in midwifery and parent-child nursing at Georgetown, George Mason University, California State University and, finally, the University of Colorado in Denver. It was at the Colorado posting, where she was in charge of the university’s nurse-midwifery graduate program, that she felt things were absolutely perfect. “I had a fabulous job as a full professor with tenure, I could ski on the weekends, and I had this spectacular apartment with a view of the Rockies all the way from Pikes Peak to Wyoming.”

But then Vanderbilt entered the picture.

At a professional conference, she had met a faculty member at the Vanderbilt nursing school who had apparently been impressed enough by Conway-Welch to throw her name in the hat to run the place. At that point in the early ’80s, the Vanderbilt nursing school had been without a dean for two years. It was losing money. And yet the school wanted to interview her. Had it not been for a report known as the “Future Five,” she’s not sure she would have agreed to do so.

At a professional conference, she had met a faculty member at the Vanderbilt nursing school who had apparently been impressed enough by Conway-Welch to throw her name in the hat to run the place. At that point in the early ’80s, the Vanderbilt nursing school had been without a dean for two years. It was losing money. And yet the school wanted to interview her. Had it not been for a report known as the “Future Five,” she’s not sure she would have agreed to do so.

“This was a group of faculty who had been asked to write an evaluation of the school—to look at the last five years and identify what was right and wrong, look at the situation currently, and project five years into the future,” she says. “They were absolutely courageous, because in writing the footprint for where the school needed to go, it meant some of them might be out of jobs. But they were certain that the footprint was in the best interest of Vanderbilt.”

Impressed by their selflessness, Conway-Welch agreed to be interviewed.

“At the time,” recalls Ike Robinson, the retired vice-chancellor of health affairs who interviewed Conway-Welch, “the nursing school was neither fish nor fowl. The school didn’t report to the medical center—it reported to the university provost. But it did interact a lot with the medical center. Colleen said she wanted to change things and report directly to me.”

Conway-Welch remembers her first interview going this way: “I asked Ike, 'What do you think of the nursing school?’ And he said, 'I don’t.’ It was obvious the reporting needed to be changed.”

Both remember Conway-Welch strongly arguing that the lines of authority be changed, thereby integrating the nursing school into the medical center. She conditioned her hiring, actually, on the change in reporting, which was a fairly aggressive—and quite smart—request. Vanderbilt’s chancellor at the time, Joe B. Wyatt, agreed to the shift in reporting and the hiring of Conway-Welch. “The chancellor really was thrilled,” she recalls, “because he didn’t know what the future held with the school and putting the school under someone as smart as Ike made sense.”

Conway-Welch remembers that while driving from Colorado to Nashville, she cried “all the way to the Kansas line. Here I was, a 40-year-old, divorced, single, Catholic, female nurse with no connection to Nashville at all, going into a city I knew nothing about. But then I figured it would be just another adventure and crossed the Kansas line and stopped crying.”

Conway-Welch got off to a quick start at the nursing school. With strong assistance from Robinson, a five-year plan to get the school out of the red was developed. “We got out in year four,” she says. At the same time, the nature of the school was redesigned. When Conway-Welch arrived, Vanderbilt offered a four-year baccalaureate program in nursing and a small master’s degree program in nursing. But that was changed in favor of a master’s program with multiple entry options known informally as the “bridge” program.

“Since we are part of an academic health science center at Vanderbilt, an emphasis on graduate degrees made complete sense.” The school was one of the first in the nation to introduce the “bridge” master’s program, which, in addition to registered nurses, accepts students who have three years of undergraduate and prerequisite courses. These students then “bridge” into a graduate degree in six semesters or 24 months.

“Look,” says Robinson, “the point is that Colleen can be a very effective advocate for the school, almost to the point of driving you crazy.”

Conway-Welch also hit the ground running to raise money. “I clearly remember making my first development call—it had been set up by the development people. I practiced for days in front of the mirror how to ask this donor for money.”

The person being asked was prominent Nashville businessman Ted Welch, whose youngest daughter was about to graduate from the nursing school. The call exceeded Conway-Welch’s every expectation. “I got two to three sentences out, and he interrupted me and said, 'How much do you want?’ I told him, and he said, 'Fine.’ The development officer melted.”

Several days later, her phone rang, and Welch asked her to dinner. “I met him at the old Mario’s, in a lovely private room just for two. He had a bottle of champagne on the table, and there was candlelight. I thought, 'Oh my goodness.’ We were married three months later.

“I knew it was right at that first date. He had a kind of take-charge attitude; he was engaging, polite and powerful.”

Today, the Vanderbilt University Nursing School graduates approximately 220 students with master’s degrees a year. Demand for advanced-practice nursing is huge now, placing enormous value on what the nursing program is producing. In 1993, the school also added a Ph.D. program.

As the nursing school found steady legs, Conway-Welch began moving into the community more. Typically, she says, nurses are not active in various nonprofits or other causes simply because “they work so hard.” But if she was to be raising money for Vanderbilt, she thought she needed to take a leadership role in the city to show what an advanced nurse could do and to raise money for other causes as well. In 1990, she was asked to chair the annual fund-raising campaign for the United Way of Middle Tennessee. She also joined the advisory boards of directors of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center, the EAR Foundation and Alive Hospice. In the mid-’90s, she was named to the board of the Nashville Symphony and chaired the organization in 1996-97. But it was in establishing the Vine Hill Clinic that she made perhaps her most lasting impression on Nashville.

The beginnings of the clinic go back to 1990, when Conway-Welch started a nurse-run primary health care facility in the Vine Hill neighborhood, near the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the clinic is operated by the nursing school. While it serves all of Davidson County, many of its patients are disabled and elderly and come from the surrounding neighborhood, which offers limited health services.

The clinic is located on the second floor of the Vine Hill Community Center. A redevelopment project recently completed nearby provides low-income housing, but many credit the clinic with bringing a sense of rejuvenation to the neighborhood. Some 60 to 70 patients come in every day.

Conway-Welch is often called upon to serve on a number of national boards and commissions studying health-care issues. Her husband Ted is one of the nation’s most prominent Republican fund-raisers, and the couple run in top GOP circles. “I wasn’t politically involved at all [before getting married], but we found our political philosophies were similar,” she says. “He has opened doors for me that I have walked through. He has been very supportive.”

The benefit to the area is obvious, but as a health-care facility completely run by advanced-practice nurses, the benefit to the school is obvious as well. The clinic is now part of an international research project studying how patient care can be redesigned. “Being involved in a national project shows that nurse practitioners provide superb care,” Dr. Paul Miles, former executive director and chief quality officer for the Center for Clinical Improvement at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told the center’s newsletter, The Reporter.

Conway-Welch is often called upon to serve on a number of national boards and commissions studying health-care issues. Her husband Ted is one of the nation’s most prominent Republican fund-raisers, and the couple run in top GOP circles. “I wasn’t politically involved at all [before getting married], but we found our political philosophies were similar,” she says. “He has opened doors for me that I have walked through. He has been very supportive.”

At the state and federal levels, Conway-Welch’s involvement in various initiatives, boards and commissions consumes much of her 22-page résumé. But at least as far as Tennessee is concerned, her most important efforts probably have been in addressing access issues to OB-GYN care for women in underserved areas of the state. Meanwhile, at the federal level, she speaks frequently with U.S. Sen. Bill Frist about the problem of improving communication between emergency responders and community-based nurses in the wake of a terror incident.

“One of the problems is that there is no common radio in Nashville, much like what was found in New York,” she says. “The one good thing coming out of 9/11 is that the health infrastructure is being strengthened and that there’s increased respect for workers in the health-care arena.”

Kaki Friskics-Warren is the executive director of Renewal House in North Nashville. The organization offers a warm, secure environment for mothers who have been addicted to drugs or alcohol, where they can try to rebuild their lives without losing custody of their children. Most of the mothers who come to Renewal House are poor, broke and dispirited.

Key to the success at Renewal House has been the apartments it offers women who are in, or have recently completed, a recovery program. Renewal House typically recruits local organizations to “sponsor” an apartment, which involves rehabbing and furnishing a unit so people can live there.

The downtown Rotary Club agreed to sponsor a unit; Conway-Welch, who is a downtown Rotarian, helped make the sponsorship happen.

“I really didn’t expect her to show up for the workday itself,” says Friskics-Warren. “But on two Saturdays, she drove up in her beige Jaguar and scraped and painted and sweated and was the last to leave. You could tell she was going to keep those Rotary members there until they met every expectation. While she moves in very powerful circles, there is this grassroots part of her that keeps things really interesting.

“The point I would want to make most clearly is her passion for women’s health issues and for assisting women in poverty and helping them get out of situations that are unhealthy for them,” Friskics-Warren continues. “That’s where it starts. She also advocates for creating environments where women can excel, and she’s done that at the nursing school. But she does that at Renewal House as well, because she doesn’t like addiction keeping women down, and she doesn’t like a glass ceiling keeping them down either.”

Conway-Welch herself is not one to toot the gender horn. “I haven’t really been into that,” she says. “A lot of my job has to do with women’s issues, but I don’t need that identity. I’m not strident about it. Where I land is always in women’s health issues.”

And Nashville’s a better city for it.

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