Unwavering dedication to colleagues and patient care define staff celebrating 35 and 40 years of service

This year marks the 35th or 40th service anniversary for 84 Vanderbilt University Medical Center staff. They were swept up in a wave of expansion that enhanced the medical center’s ability to meet the needs of Tennessee’s growing population. Employees who joined VUMC in 1980 and 1985 came in search of opportunity — needing a job — wanting to start a career — some as young as seventeen — some from states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio. Along the way they found community, and they developed a shared commitment to helping others. 

“I wasn't sure what I had gotten myself into. After staying 35 years, I would say it was a good decision,” said Panda Dodson, associate director, Health IT Revenue Cycle Portfolio I.

“It was my first real job in the work world,” echoed Lolita Fite, associate patient service specialist, Vanderbilt Preoperative Evaluation Center, who is celebrating 40 years at VUMC. 


A changing campus
Like so many of their colleagues, Frite and Dodson virtually grew up on VUMC’s campus. And they agree the campus and surrounding area looked and felt much different than it does today. 

Tonzia Brown, manager, Housekeeping department, and a 40-year honoree, recalled the long gone H.G. Hill Supermarket and Kentucky Fried Chicken overflowing with Vanderbilt employees on paydays. 

Thirty-five-year veteran Claire VanCour, financial clearance specialist, Central Registration 10, shared how employees were allowed to smoke at their desks when she started working at VUMC. Ash trays were put away before leaving for the day. 

“We didn’t have computers on our desks back then, and the ‘memory typewriter’ was the best thing since sliced bread,” said Lisa Wagahoff, budget/accounting analyst, Melrose Support Services, and a 35-year honoree. She remembers only one outpatient pharmacy in Medical Center North. Now there are five.

Many also remember gravel parking lots which are now occupied by the Vanderbilt University Hospital (VUH) and the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital where Mylinda Frost, a 40-year honoree and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse works. “The amazing advances we’ve made in saving younger patients and improved outcomes is very rewarding,” Frost said. One of her most vivid memories is of flying in an Army Blackhawk helicopter to transport a baby to VUMC prior to the start of Vanderbilt’s LifeFlight program. 

Friendships to last a lifetime
In each season of change — whether full-on expansion, moderate building modifications, procedural changes or technology upgrades — a common theme among honorees has been solidarity, and a love for coworkers, patients and their families. 

“So many of my friends are from my connections at Vanderbilt. We have vacationed together for 18 years!,” said Lisa Hacker, administrative coordinator for the Children’s Hospital, who is celebrating 35 years.  “Last year we went international and vacationed in Ireland. This fall we were going to Greece, but COVID-19 changed that. One of the ladies has a cabin in Alaska, so we are social distancing in Alaska next week.” 

Cheryl Boehm, radiologic technologist in the Vanderbilt Walk-In Clinic, is celebrating 35 years at VUMC. She recalled the immediate connection she felt with her coworkers in the Pediatric Cardiac Cath Lab. “We were always there for each other when times were good, busy, or off the rails,” she said. 

Christine Green, supervisor revenue cycle, Central Registration 30, and Cindy Kilgore, director, perioperative services, VUH Periop OR/PACU/Holding Adm, both seconded that feeling of love from coworkers. Kilgore recalled the time she tried to resign after giving birth to her twin girls. Her director let her know they were family. “I returned [after taking leave] and never left,” Kilgore said. “[My director] truly saved my life and my career.”

Resident physicians, an important resource in patient care delivery in teaching hospitals have a special place in some of our honorees’ hearts. Some shared how they enjoy watching residents evolve as doctors. 

Holley Culley, assistant manager, Patient Care Services and a 35-year honoree, said, “One of my most special memories is of working with resident physicians — possibly my most favorite job of all. I have seen many come and go over the years and still find it so exciting to meet them each July and nurture, support and educate for their three years here.” 

Always putting patients first
Honorees who are directly involved with patient care say one of the great joys of working at VUMC has been getting to know their patients. 

“Some patients brought the best baked goods to share with staff members. I actually still have a chess squares recipe given to me from a patient,” said insurance verification specialist, Debbie Craig, a 40-year honoree in Registration Management. 

Carol Wilson, a patient care technician celebrating 40 years in the Children’s Hospital Holding Room/PACU 10, never forgot meeting the character Abbie Newman from the daytime soap opera, the Young and the Restless. 

Working with pediatric patients comes with the added benefit of getting to know their families, said Allison Duffey, case manager in Pediatric Hematology/ Oncology, who is celebrating 35 years of service. She shared how she was recently invited to a 50th birthday party of a patient she cared for when the patient was 15. 

Administrative coordinator for Children’s Hospital, Lisa Hacker, a 35-year honoree, said, “My days as a PCCU RN were so special. Many times, you are the one with the parents as they hold their child for the last time. You are there at the darkest time in their life. As a bedside nurse, you do all you can do to make those last memories as precious as possible. Those memories will always stay with you forever.” 

Kim Schaeffer, registered nurse 2, Internal Medicine Clinical Team, One Hundred Oaks and 35-year honoree, remembers vividly her first transplant patient and the bond she shared with the entire family. “I was invited to his son’s wedding in their hometown and got to see him be the best man for the wedding. Drove back again to see his daughter be married. Saw him become a grandfather — become the world’s oldest heart transplant. At the end he was brought back to VUMC— all the way from his hometown — to his second home. I held his hand at the end — as I did when he was getting his heart transplant.” 

Growing gains
After VUMC and Vanderbilt University separated, Health Plus became part of the hospital. For some, the change had little impact on their outlook. Donna Tidwell, lead administrative assistant, Health Plus and a 40-year VUMC veteran, remained upbeat. She said, “Vanderbilt is the best employer in all the land. It was one of the most special things that my parents talked about to all their friends — their daughter working at Vanderbilt!” 

One of the most recent additions to VUMC’s network has been the Wilson County Hospital. Fay Stewart, lead administrative assistant to the chief quality officer, Quality, Safety & Risk Prevention at Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital said, “My special moment was when it was announced that the Lebanon hospital had been bought by Vanderbilt and how proud I was that I was going to be working for them.” Like many who have gone through major technology and software changes over the years, she found it challenging at first, but has gained proficiency in using the new systems. “We were welcomed into the Vanderbilt system, and everyone has been so accommodating.”

There are so many lasting memories held by this dedicated group of individuals. They reflected on the decades they have spent on VUMC’s campus with fondness. They worked hard and had fun. 

Celebrating 35 years of service, registered nurse 3, Pediatric Urology Clinical, Eva Todd said her fondest memories are of “working with ‘the Ladies of the Nights’ as the weekend nurses called themselves, and going out to the Pancake Pantry with the crew after working a shift.” 

Accommodating, supportive, selfless — these are just a few adjectives that can be used to describe VUMC’s 35-year and 40-year honorees. Some came not intending to stay. In the end, they found it difficult to abandon a network of coworkers and friends who walked beside them through exhilarating times, heartbreaking times and everything in between. Some could not imagine leaving behind the patients they came to know and love. They remain ready to pivot — at a moment’s notice — dedicated to helping VUMC lead in its mission to improve the health of individuals in the populations it serves.