5 Minutes with Nancy McDonald: On serving in the Texas legislature

NurseWeek, March 18, 2002

It became clear to me during that time that policy work in state government was the most efficient way to improve nursing and health care for people. I could see that as a nurse I was in a unique position to make that happen, so I decided to run for state office. Having worked in local politics, I was able to garner a lot of support and campaign help.

How did you become involved in politics?

Part of our professional code of ethics tells us that we’ll strive to “improve standards of nursing practice and promote … efforts to meet health needs of the public.” I’ve always taken that aspect of the code very seriously.

During the 12 years that I was a hospital staff and head nurse, I was also involved in local politics. During that time, an influx of foreign nurses pointed to the need for a clearer definition of nursing responsibilities in the Nursing Practice Act. After joining the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Texas Nurses Association, we set to work to rewrite parts of the act and then to lobby the Legislature for its passage.

It became clear to me during that time that policy work in state government was the most efficient way to improve nursing and health care for people. I could see that as a nurse I was in a unique position to make that happen, so I decided to run for state office. Having worked in local politics, I was able to garner a lot of support and campaign help.

Survey after national survey has shown that the public at large trusts nurses and holds them in high esteem. I certainly found that to be true both within my hometown of El Paso and within the Legislature. People in my district trusted me and re-elected me every term for 13 years until I retired in 1997. My fellow legislators relied heavily on me for expertise in health care. When I spoke on health care, it got their attention.

Was it difficult for you to juggle work and family?

That’s difficult for any woman. I had a husband and 10 children, so I needed to work. When the children were young, hospital work with its 24/7 coverage requirements offered me the opportunity to work a flexible schedule to accommodate child care and events.

I didn’t run for state office until the youngest child graduated from high school. Serving in the Legislature is a full-time job, whether in session or not.

What are you proudest of in your legislative work?

I feel good about the work I did for AIDS. When I was first elected in 1984, the AIDS epidemic was becoming public. Legislation was needed to cover many of the problems-like confidentiality, directives for health care workers (precautions), regulations, funding for education. My health care background was important in overcoming the hysteria. Every subsequent session, there was a lot of work to be done to refine legislation and to make sure that what was gained was not torn apart.

One of the first bills I worked on was assuring that licensed respiratory therapist regulations did not conflict with nursing practice. I worked with the Texas Nurses Association every term to update the Nursing Practice Act. I helped get funding for a huge study about the nursing shortage in Texas.

The Board of Nurse Examiners Sunset review would come up, and every session I worked to get the [board] the money it needed for testing and checking out complaints against people. I worked with [the Texas Department of] Mental Health and Mental Retardation for smaller group homes for the developmentally disabled and to review lawsuits for better care for custodial or institutionalized patients. I made sure state-funded institutions kept up with best-practice standards.

I am glad I was there to give my input from the nursing perspective to health care legislation and the budget wars. I know it helped. Serving on the Public Health and Appropriations Committees allowed me to balance finances with political considerations. That’s important work.

What reaction have your children had to your political activity?

I think it has affected them pretty profoundly. All of them really enjoyed helping me with my campaigns. They all tell me they’re proud of me for the work I’ve done.

My son, Chuck McDonald, was assistant press secretary to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. He is now a busy political consultant with a public relations firm.

My youngest daughter, Elizabeth, is a neonatal intensive care nurse in Austin. She tells me that since becoming a nurse, she’s often amazed at seeing the tangible results of my labor in the Legislature.

For example, in El Paso, she made the connection with my work and how AIDS patients and those with mental illness were treated more humanely. She tells me she knows how my work has made life better for a lot of Texans, and that makes me happy.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident and retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews, writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.