After nearly half a century of unparalleled patient care and education, TCOM’s Dr. Nancy Tierney is retiring
“We were on Broad Street in Peekskill, New York,” she said when a then 13-year-old Tierney told her father she wanted to be a nurse.
He scoffed at the idea and steered her toward a future in teaching. Decades later, Tierney can say she did both as a professor at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine. Now, after an illustrious 49-year career as a nurse, educator and mentor, she is entering retirement.
Her career almost didn’t happen. Tierney’s nursing journey and teaching career, which began in June of 1974, will end in June of 2023. This remarkable nurse found her passion at a young age and turned that feeling into a career of excellence.
Becoming a nurse and teacher
Tierney was drawn to the nursing profession at such a young age for one reason: They took care of people. At 13, before the infamous car ride with her father, Tierney had to have emergency surgery. The traumatic experience was difficult, and the recovery even harder, but it was her stay at the hospital that motivated her to a career in nursing.
“I remember I was really sick after surgery and it was the nurses who took really good care of me,” Tierney said. “I didn’t know what was going on, but they brought me what I wanted and what I needed. It was there in the hospital that I wanted to do that for somebody else. I wanted to be that strength for someone, and that’s why I wanted to be a nurse.”
Tierney graduated from the Marquette University College of Nursing in 1974 and began as a staff nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee. She moved to Mount Sinai Hospital in 1975, and it wasn’t long after the hospital asked Tierney to take on a dual role as a clinical educator for the cardiac units, while also still working as a staff nurse. The nurse had become a teacher.
“I told my dad, and he was OK with it and knew that I loved both professions,” Tierney said. “That’s what really spurred me on to go back for my Master’s degree because I loved teaching.”
Tierney was also learning about the profession as nursing continued to evolve. She also discovered one of her passions, working as a cardiovascular clinician.
“I like the urgency and emergency aspect of critical care,” she said. “It really caught my attention because it’s life-threatening. While the patient is recovering, it could still happen, and I wanted to help the patient recover and prevent that from happening.”
It was at Mt. Sinai that Tierney recalls perhaps her fondest memory in dealing with a patient, but also a critical moment for her growth in the profession. She was a clinical educator in the cardiac units and was teaching on telemetry when she heard a blood-curdling scream coming from one of the nurses at the monitoring stations.
“My monitor tech was looking at the monitor of a patient and saw the patient was in ventricular tachycardia and she screamed for me to go to the room,” Tierney said. “I knew something wasn’t right, and when I went into the room there was no patient in the bed. He had collapsed in the bathroom, and I couldn’t open the door because he was blocking the door.”
With her heart pounding, Tierney was able to get into the bathroom and found the patient lying on the floor…laughing.
“I said to him, ‘What’s so funny?’ He told me that he was a little dizzy, so he sat down, looked at the monitor, and didn’t see anything so he started shaking the wires,” Tierney said. “It was the shaking of the wires that caused the monitor to react the way that it did. He was trying to get our attention and get help. But if he hadn’t done that, we might not have found him because he couldn’t reach the pull cord in the bathroom after he collapsed.
“It helped me understand something that we may not have been doing well and it brought it home,” Tierney said. “Our patients felt like we weren’t paying attention to them, and they had to do something drastic like that to get our attention. It really changed how we did things.”
Nursing was growing and on the move and so was Tierney.
Coming to Texas
In 1984, Tierney moved to Abilene, Texas, and she was hired to become an instructor for the Abilene Intercollegiate School of Nursing. Five years later, Tierney was the manager of a 33-bed telemetry unit at The Irving Hospital. She then went to the Zale Lipshy University Hospital, which was a private teaching hospital for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and its students.
Then in 1994, an opportunity arose to be the clinical coordinator of cardiovascular services at the Osteopathic Medical Center of Texas in Fort Worth, and Tierney leaped at the chance.
Tierney would be interacting with TCOM students at the hospital, teaching cardiology but also still having an active role in patient care at the same time. She was doing everything she loved in one place.
During her time at the OMCT, TCOM’s chair of Internal Medicine at the time, Dr. Michael Clearfield, approached Tierney about joining the school full-time as an educator. He felt Tierney would be better utilized as a part of the medical school.
“Dr. Clearfield also made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Tierney said. “It was hard though when the hospital closed down because I can’t say enough good things about all of the cardiologists, doctors and staff I worked with. They were all fantastic.”
During that time, she met a surgeon named Dr. Albert Yurvati. Their career paths would follow closely over the next three decades from the OMCT to educators at TCOM. A mutual respect and friendship was also born.
“He’s always been my champion, even to this day,” Tierney said.
Tierney joined TCOM as a professor in the Department of Medical Education and an Acute Care Nurse Practioner in the cardiology clinic in 2000. Tierney was active across the entire region in teaching. She was a preceptor for the TCU Harris College of Nursing and had staff appointments at John Peter Smith Hospital and the Plaza Medical Center. She was an adjunct professor at Herzing University, teaching online graduate courses in advanced pathophysiology, and an adjunct at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Nursing, where she was a preceptor for nurse practitioners and doctoral students.
In 2016, Tierney was appointed the director of simulation at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. In that role, she coordinated all of the simulation activities and objectives for the five schools at HSC.
“She’s been a fantastic mentor for our students, and it’s been an honor to collaborate and to have even published works with Dr. Tierney,” said Dr. Yurvati. “We have known each other for almost 30 years. I have seen how much she cares, not only about her patients but also her profession. I can’t think of a better role model and advisor for TCOM students.”
Tierney was doing more teaching than even perhaps she thought she would ever do, but her motivation was simple. It was for the students.
All for the students
The answer was easy but getting it out wasn’t. When Tierney was asked what she will miss the most when she retires. After a few pauses, she began to tear up: “It’s the students.”
“They have given me so much and helped me be the educator that I am, the person that I am, they had a big role in that for almost 23 years,” Tierney said. “They transformed me. When I started teaching at TCOM, I wanted to help educate upcoming physicians about teamwork and that nurses have value. That was a major goal. What I’ve come out of this with is that everyone has value, the students have a lot to contribute if we just listen to them.”
It was the students who convinced Tierney not to retire years earlier. Members of TCOM’s Class of 2023 sat in her office, begging her to stay on until they graduated. She acquiesced and proudly watched her final class of students graduate in May.
Her work with the students wasn’t just limited to the classroom or simulations: Tierney was an Everett College advisor. One of her proudest moments in TCOM involves her time as an advisor.
She recalls that one of her students failed a course and had to meet with the Student Performance Committee. Tierney remembers the student had serious family issues going on while trying to take care of her classroom work. The student became what Tierney called “ambivalent” about the entire process, and she was concerned.
The student was able to remediate the course and she took the student under her wing for the rest of their time at TCOM.
“We met through the years and had so many conversations about her family, and I watched her become a completely different person,” Tierney said. “I watched this transformation and I got to be a part of it. It was the most dramatic change and growth that I’ve ever seen.”
Tierney remembers talking, hugging and crying with the student before graduation and telling her how proud she was of her. It’s one of a treasure trove of memories from a teacher that almost never was.
It’s a path that nobody could have foreseen in that car ride on Broad Street in Westchester County, but after 49 years, Tierney ended up fulfilling two dreams with one remarkable career.