The Nurse in Chief

by Georgeann Halburian Ikuma

The mere mention of health care incites a firestorm of controversy complicated by debates over rising costs, diminishing benefits, and insurance coverage. But in the midst of the chaos, faithful, dedicated professionals still walk the hospital halls providing hope and inspiration for this growing industry and the compassionate practitioners who work hard to sustain it. Among them stands Darlena Stevens, Ph.D. ’09, RN, CNOR, NEA-BC, a lifelong nurse with a bird’s-eye view of the health care system and optimism about the future.

Early in her career, Stevens, now chief nurse executive (CNE) at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Diego, gained invaluable experience in pediatrics, the intensive care unit, and the operating room. “I got my first management position while in the OR and my course was set,” said Stevens, who specialized in perioperative nursing, an area in which nurses are responsible for patients from the time they enter the hospital, through any type of surgery, until they are discharged.

Offering the Best Care Possible

While caring for patients and raising a family with her husband, Curtis, she found time to further her education at APU. “The university reinforced the importance of strong Christian values, an important aspect of nursing,” she said. “We ask ourselves, ‘How does spirituality apply to our patients’ health?’ Human kindness goes a long way in the healing process, and nursing fits with the ethical stance of Christianity that reminds us that we need to do the right thing,” she said. “The most rewarding part of my job is being able to help people in need and seeing it on their faces when I’ve somehow been able to make a difference for them.”

Stevens’ career trajectory into larger administrative roles—from ICU nurse at Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina to director of perioperative and emergency services at Providence Health Systems in Burbank—expanded her sphere of influence. From developing funds for nursing research and student nurse scholarships to overseeing operational advancements and staff performances, Stevens’ leadership expertise helped to ensure that patients received the best care possible.

As vice president of patient care at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas, she not only coordinated a building project related to a 12-suite cardiovascular operating room, but she also worked side by side with world-renowned Denton Cooley, the cardiac surgeon who performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States. The rare opportunity inspired Stevens to begin her doctoral studies at Texas Women’s University.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

The chance to serve as vice president for quality, safety, and education at Riverside Community Hospital, brought her back to California and to APU to finish her doctorate. “Like many industries, the nursing field constantly faces the challenge to stay current,” said Stevens. “APU kept me ahead of the curve.”

“Darlena is committed to keeping abreast of issues surrounding hospital nursing,” said Vivien Dee, DNSc, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, professor of nursing and Stevens’ APU advisor and dissertation chair. “She is unassuming and possesses admirably strong interpersonal skills,” just a few of the qualities that recently earned Stevens induction into APU’s Academic Hall of Honor, which recognizes people who have modeled APU’s Four Cornerstones of Christ, Scholarship, Community, and Service in their chosen career.

Stevens’ scholarly accolades, success in the workplace, and selflessness also garnered her the prestigious position of CNE at San Diego’s Kaiser Permanente (KP)—a 392-bed medical center. “I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve ever had, but with Kaiser, there’s a special fit. I feel like I’ve been working there my entire life,” said Stevens, whose responsibilities include implementing proper support systems and tools for the nursing staff. “Kaiser fosters a higher level of collaboration and focuses strongly on preventive care. Our goal is to keep people healthy and out of acute care.”

A Bright Future in Nursing

Stevens points out that she is not APU’s only link to Kaiser. “APU nursing students have utilized Kaiser for their clinical rotations for many years,” she said. “At KP San Diego, not only are nursing students able to hone their skills, but several have also joined the organization as registered nurses.”

In light of the country’s current climate surrounding health care, Stevens’ hard work and dedication prove that positive things happen daily in this ever-evolving field. “I encourage anyone who enjoys being around people and wants to make a difference in the lives of others to consider nursing as a lifelong career,” said Stevens. “Nurses continually learn new skills, gain knowledge, and contribute to the comfort and healing of those in need in a variety of ways. I truly believe it is a great time to be a nurse, and certainly looks to be for years to come.”

Georgeann Halburian Ikuma is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.