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“It’s How You Live Your Life”: Leadership at Every Step

Chisa Huffman was six years old when she fell in love with nursing after a traumatic domestic violence incident sent her mother to the hospital.

“The nurse was so good with my mom and comforted me,” said Huffman. “She knew what I wanted without me saying anything. She brought me crayons and paper and let me color. I fell in love with her and thought she was an angel.”

Huffman grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, in a family that struggled to put food on the table. She graduated from high school with honors in 1999.

“I was never taught about what comes after high school or how to make the transition to college,” said Huffman. “I got a job right after high school with a health insurance company. It was the closest thing I could get to being a nurse, but I knew I could work my way up in life and become one.”

Huffman continued to live with her mom, helped pay the bills, and took college classes one at a time when she could afford them. In 2008, she met Edward Huffman, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, and a UT Chattanooga graduate. The couple married in 2009 and live in Maryville.

“He kept asking me what I wanted to do with my life,” said Huffman. “I told him I wanted to be a nurse and he encouraged me to follow my dream.”

In 2010, Huffman enrolled in classes at the local American Red Cross chapter and became licensed as a certified nursing assistant. She was voted most outstanding student by her peers.

She then enrolled in Blount Memorial Hospital’s diploma program to become a licensed practical nurse.

As class president she was slated to deliver a commencement speech on September 22, 2011. Instead, she encountered another kind of delivery—the birth of her first child, a son, at 2:50 a.m.

“I couldn’t attend the ceremony so I gave my speech from a speakerphone while lying in my hospital bed,” said Huffman.

Just two weeks later, the new mom took and passed her LPN boards. She got a job in the hospice unit at UT Medical Center.

“I was around all those RNs at UT Medical Center and wanted to be just like them,” said Huffman. “So at 30 years old, I enrolled in Pellissippi State’s first LPN to RN bridge program.”

During this time, her husband’s mother and father passed away and the couple became responsible for his grandmother. Huffman took time off from school and work to take care of her.

“She moved in with us and I became her caregiver,” said Huffman. “She was like my very own patient and I learned so much from her. She supported me every step of the way in my nursing journey and has been my guiding force. She passed away in April of 2016, but she’s always with me, inspiring me to keep going.”

Huffman earned her associate’s degree in nursing in May 2014, again graduating with honors. She passed her national licensing exam and went to work as an RN on the specialty surgical unit at Blount Memorial Hospital, where she quickly moved up to charge nurse. In July 2014, UT’s College of Nursing recruited her for their RN to BSN program.

In May 2015 Huffman graduated with her BSN, summa cum laude. It was Pamela Hardesty, a clinical associate professor of nursing and coordinator of the master’s program, who encouraged her to go to graduate school.

“I met Dr. Hardesty in my nursing leadership class and remember looking at her and wanting to be like her and learn how to motivate people like she does,” said Huffman.

Huffman enrolled in graduate school in the fall of 2015. She received her MSN with a nursing administration concentration and a minor in nursing education in December 2016.

“Chisa is not only a terrific student but a terrific person,” said Hardesty. “She has an inner drive, hardiness, an accurate sense of self, and a thirst for learning that will help her be successful in future nursing leadership roles. Our profession not only faces a shortage of nurses, but we also face a shortage of qualified nurse leaders. We need nurses of her caliber to enter into nursing leadership roles. Chisa represents the future of our profession, and it’s been an honor to work with her in our program.”

Huffman was selected to become the first-ever nurse executive leadership resident with the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), an organization that represents more than 250 hospitals as well as freestanding surgery centers in the United States and United Kingdom. Halfway through the two-year residency, she is working with the corporation’s senior nurse executives to build a residency program to help develop and train the next generation of HCA nurse leaders.

Huffman says it’s hard to put her experience into words. “One of my finest experiences is having the opportunity to take an idea, go to the research and find evidence-based practice, combine theory and real life, create materials supporting evidence-based practice, execute a pilot test in four states, gather data, make edits, and distribute this information enterprise wide to over 500+ med-surg units,” she said.

The process required continuous engagement from numerous divisions of the company, including Nursing, Finance, Performance Improvement, Patient Experience, Human Resources, Clinical Analytics, and Education, as well as division leadership and senior executives.

“Leading care in today’s world requires someone who is not afraid to ask the right questions and obtain the hard-to-swallow answers,” Huffman said. “It requires someone who is compassionate about how one decision could potentially affect thousands,” she said. “I believe leading care is not something you set out to do. It’s how you live your life.”

Huffman is staying on at UT, beginning work toward a Doctor of Nursing Practice in executive leadership with a minor in health care policy this fall. She hopes to complete her DNP in 2019.

“Years ago, when I began my nursing career at the local Red Cross by becoming licensed as a certified nursing assistant, never in a million years did I ever think it would lead to this.” Huffman looks forward to stepping into a permanent executive nursing leadership role within HCA.

She has recently had the opportunity to work with the US Department of Health and Human Services as a grant reviewer. “This has opened up my world to a new level of determination,” she said. “I’ve never seen myself as a political figure, but I want to be a voice for people specifically in the health care realm.”

Huffman finds time to serve as a mentor for tnAchieves, which helps students make the transition from high school to college, and Amachi, an organization that serves children whose parents are incarcerated.

“I try to get out there as much as I can because I want people to hear my story,” said Huffman. “I want to inspire others and let them know there’s hope and financial help if you want to go to college. Most importantly, I want people to know and attain their true potential.”