Terri Gillespie is retiring from UMMC after a nursing career spanning more than three decades.
Terri Gillespie is retiring from UMMC after a nursing career spanning more than three decades.
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Consummate 'nurse's nurse' reflects on her retirement

Published on Monday, November 9, 2020

By: Ruth Cummins

When Terri Gillespie earned her nurse’s pin in the mid-1980s, a new and deadly infection was baffling the medical community.

“It was equally as terrifying as COVID has been, just not as widespread at first. It wasn’t even identified as HIV,” Gillespie said. “No one wore gloves when they were touching the patients. They didn’t worry about infecting patients, or being infected by patients. There wasn’t nearly the focus on the science behind transmission of disease.”

Flash forward to now, as the COVID virus spikes across the country. “I look at the numbers every day. It scares me for the staff,” said Gillespie, chief nursing officer of the adult hospitals at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and chief nursing executive and clinical services officer for the Health System.

As she nears retirement next month following a nursing career spanning more than three decades, Gillespie is proud of the Medical Center’s COVID response and its protocols that give laser focus to infection control. “It’s amazing to think of how rapidly we put processes in place in a manner that had never been done before,” she said. 

That’s thanks to team members like Gillespie, said Britt Crewse, chief executive officer of the adult hospitals. 

Portrait of Britt Crewse

“She is a very calming force,” Crewse said. “Terri does not get excited during a crisis or a challenging situation. That is extremely helpful, and extremely important, in leadership.

“She has never forgotten her roots as a floor nurse. She can be in whatever space she’s asked to be in, and is able to adapt very quickly and very well.”

Not surprisingly, Gillespie began her career in emergency medicine. After graduation from East Carolina University, she worked several years in North Carolina before accepting a job in UMMC’s adult Emergency Department in 1985. 

She’d also interviewed at another Jackson hospital. “I was offered at job there, on the spot, for something I wasn’t qualified for, and then I interviewed at UMMC,” Gillespie said. “They said they’d call me back in a few days.”

In 1987, she took a break as she began her family. She returned in 1996, working as a recovery room nurse for about eight years. Gillespie became nurse manager of the recovery room and surgical ICU, working in those roles from 2003-07, then served as director of adult ICUs from 2007-10. 

Gillespie hugs UMMC's Children's Miracle Network Champion during a 2000 visit to the Mississippi Children's Museum in Jackson.
Gillespie hugs UMMC's Children's Miracle Network Champion during a 2000 visit to the Mississippi Children's Museum in Jackson.

From 2010-14, she served as chief nursing officer for Batson Children’s Hospital. She’s been in her current role since 2014, although it’s gotten tweaks along the way.

It all started, though, with a little girl’s dream of becoming a nurse like the one in “Julia,” a 1968-71 sitcom about a widowed single mom who worked for an aerospace company as a registered nurse. “I thought she was the coolest thing ever,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie sought out a fast-paced role after nursing school. “I wanted to work in a teaching hospital, or the trauma center of an emergency department,” she said. “I don’t know that I thought about what the next steps were, but getting to the point where I am now was an organic thing.”

As leadership opportunities at the Medical Center presented themselves, Gillespie embraced them. “I applied for manager of the PACU, because the manager was leaving. I thought, ‘Who’s going to take this job? I can do this.’”

In her current role, Gillespie is responsible “for the nursing practice of every nurse in the organization,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, what I do is try to synthesize what is going on with the organization, and make that center on what is best for the patient.

“I see everything through the nurse’s lens and the patient’s lens. I make my decisions based on how they are going to impact the nurse delivering the best care possible to the patient they’re caring for.”

Bringing the rock band KISS to life are, from left, Brandi Nester, nurse manager; Troy Pearson, retired nurse; Gillespie; Tanya Tucker, nurse manager; and Don Horn, nurse manager.

Crewse watched Gillespie’s leadership skills take center stage as the Medical Center ramped up care for patients with COVID, notably conversion of 2 North in University Hospital and the medical intensive care unit to all-COVID care. “That requires a new mindset for staff, and Terri did a good job of working with her team to transition us to COVID units,” Crewse said.

A big part of her avocation is mentoring. “That’s the mark of a true leader – to take joy in watching people succeed,” Gillespie said.

Her mentees include Adrienne Murray, director of nursing quality, development and professional practice, and Jason Zimmerman, who recently was tapped to take over Gillespie’s role on an interim basis following her retirement. 

“Adrienne was my student nurse extern. We’ve known each other since 1996,” Gillespie said. “Jason and I once had a conversation about his goals for the future. He saw himself in an operational role. I said, ‘OK, ‘m going to put you in a situation where you will get organizational exposure. We will see if this is what you really like.’”

Portrait of Jason Zimmerman

Gillespie “has been an unforgettable mentor to many, including myself,” said Zimmerman, who served as associate chief nursing officer-adult nursing services before being appointed interim chief nursing executive officer and chief nursing officer. Zimmerman began his tenure at UMMC in 1999 as a hospital tech before earning his nursing degree and beginning work as a registered nurse in 2003.

“She has always challenged me to work outside of my comfort zone and to adapt and overcome my weaknesses as a leader,” Zimmerman said. “Those challenges have helped me to grow into more of a dynamic leader and positioned me to accomplish a number of my career goals.”

Portrait of Adrienne Murray

“I don’t know if it was so much the things that Terri said, as much as the things that she did,” Murray said. “You wanted to be Terri. She has a way of bringing out your strengths, and she will let you know what you need to work on. She makes you want to do your best. She’s a nurse’s nurse.” 

Gillespie counts as a mentor Dr. Janet Harris, who served for a year and a half as the health system’s interim CEO in 2011 and also as chief nursing executive officer. “She took the time to invest in me and to offer constructive criticism to make me a better leader,” Gillespie said.

Harris shares a hug with Terri Gillespie, chief nursing executive and clinical services officer, at the School of Nursing retirement reception.
Dr. Janet Harris shares a hug with Gillespie at Harris' School of Nursing retirement reception.

“The thing that always stuck out to me was Terri’s clear understanding of the complexity of the university system and the constantly changing or fluid dynamics of the organization,” said Harris, who retired in 2019 as professor of nursing and associate dean for practice and community engagement at the School of Nursing.

Family comes first for Gillespie, who returned to school to earn her master’s at age 50 and her doctorate at 55. “My decisions have been based on where my children were in growing up,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without my incredibly supportive husband, Michael.”

Gillespie’s heart is pulled in two directions as she prepares for retirement. Her plans are still in the making. “Picking up grandchildren from school at random times. Going to hunting camp. Taking a little bit better care of myself,” she said.

Leaving in the middle of a pandemic has been emotional. “I’ve thought, ‘Is this the right time?’ But, I’m confident in the team that I have around me. If COVID gets two times as bad as it was in July, they’ve got it.” 

Gillespie “taught me about becoming the nurse I want to be,” Murray said. “I may be losing my boss, but I still have my mentor and my friend. It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for her.”

“This was my assignment: You will be a nurse, and you will be the best nurse that you can be,” Gillespie said. “It’s a job well done, but only because of the support and incredible people around me.”