Ever a nurse, Wilhoit retires after 39 years with MSHA


 Kathryn Wilhoit
Wilhoit poses in the healing garden outside JCMC's ICU waiting room

 young Kathryn Wilhoit
Wilhoit in the early days at Memorial Hospital

 Nurse Wilhoit Training Sessions
Wilhoit (center) participated in training sessions for local EMTs and paramedics in the late 1970s

The fast click of her heels has brought many a nurse (and plenty of others in the health care field) to full attention: Kathryn Wilhoit’s coming, and you’d better be on top of your game.

Not many people have made a bigger difference in helping patients – and nurses – than Wilhoit, who retired this month after 39 years of service with Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA). Her philosophy has always been based on Patient-Centered Care (PCC), and even the sound of her approaching footsteps was testament to that.

“I always did love to get out on the halls,” she said with a smile. “When I was making rounds, if the nurses were congregated and weren’t back down with patients, I wanted to know why. I felt they needed to be back with patients, charting or talking with them.

“I do think when they heard the click of my heels they knew they had to scatter because they knew I wouldn’t like the congregating and chatting, if it were not about the patients.”

But, she added with a chuckle, “I’ve always walked fast and I often wore heels, so people could hear me coming. It’s not like I didn’t give fair warning.”

Wilhoit retired as vice president and chief nursing executive at MSHA, but she held an array of nursing-related positions over the years, starting out at Memorial Hospital of Johnson City and working her way into leadership.

She was instrumental in all kinds of changes and improvements, most notably in her efforts to make Johnson City Medical Center (JCMC) a magnet hospital for nurses and through her crusade to bring the philosophy of Patient-Centered Care to MSHA. Patient-Centered Care focuses on a holistic approach to healing that ministers to the mind, body and spirit, and puts the patient in control of things.

Wilhoit’s retirement took effect July 31. A week earlier, she was treated to a big celebration as hundreds of people stopped by the Tennessee Room at JCMC to say hello, good luck and goodbye.

“She’s a very special person,” MSHA President and CEO Dennis Vonderfecht told the crowd. “I met her 22 years ago. Her role has changed as she’s had a variety of supervisory roles, but she is very much a professional nurse. She’s had a huge impact on nurses in this region and across the state.”

Among Wilhoit’s achievements:

  • Did many years of recruiting and hiring nurses and was instrumental in starting nurse orientation at the J.C. Memorial Hospital as well as furthering nurse education.
  • Helped bring about great improvements to nurse scheduling, and helped create an MSHA nursing scholarship fund, making it easier for nurses throughout the region to get their nursing education
  • Led the start of the pediatric ICU at JCMC and was a driving force in getting a new ICU design and ICU waiting room at JCMC.

She played a big part in JCMC receiving designation in 2004 as the state’s first magnet hospital, a certification given by the American Nurses’ Credentialing Center to hospitals that showcase nursing excellence through a variety of criteria.

Wilhoit said she entered nursing with a strong commitment after her father passed away at age 42 of heart disease.

“My dad died when I was 12. We were eating breakfast and he slumped over and died right there at the table from a massive heart attack. And we didn’t know CPR.”

That made a lasting impression on her and was behind some of her sense of urgency about her work.

“I think I always have been known for an air of impatience,” she said. “If we have a plan and set our timetable, then what are we waiting on? I think part of my sense of urgency is based around if you don’t help somebody, they may not be here tomorrow.”

A native of Greeneville, Wilhoit received her undergraduate degree in nursing from East Tennessee State University. She served at Laughlin Memorial Hospital and worked in Norfolk, Va., before coming to Memorial Hospital of Johnson City.

She recently earned her PhD and also earned a spot as a member of the state Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators. Even with all her degrees, certifications and titles, Wilhoit said she has never dropped the “RN” that follows her name because it’s her most prized title.

While she’s now retired, Wilhoit said she’ll remain active but doesn’t yet know what form that will take. Her legacy with MSHA will be felt in many ways, but she said she didn’t accomplish anything on her own.

“I’m so proud of what the nurses have done,” she said. “And I didn’t do anything by myself. It was always a team. There are a lot of people who did a lot of hard work. It’s just wonderful to be on a team of people who will do that.

“There’s an element of personal commitment with a lot of people around here; they have that commitment to serve. I feel very fortunate to have served with them.”

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