Nancy McDonald: Icon of Texas Nursing

Texas Nursing [Vol. 84, No. 10, pp. 3-7], December 1, 2001

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.” Nancy McDonald takes that aspect of the code very seriously.

[This article was also published in the March 18, 2002 NurseWeek, p. 10-11.]

About a year ago, I worked in the same NICU bay at Seton Medical Center in Austin with a nurse new to our staff, Elizabeth McDonald. She’s quite distinctive — tall with very long hair, poised, cool, funny and ardently self-assured. She defines “cool.”

On a lark, I asked her if she had family in El Paso. She said, “Yes.” Intrigued, I asked if she knew Nancy McDonald. To my utter astonishment, she told me Nancy was her mother! In case you don’t know RN Nancy McDonald, allow me to enlighten you.

Nancy McDonald, 67, is an icon of Texas nursing. She’s one of my personal heroes. She was a hospital staff and “head” nurse for 12 years. Nancy had a large family — 10 children. When the youngest graduated from high school, Nancy went into politics. Like Elizabeth, she’s absolutely delightful — warm, compassionate and no-nonsense when it comes to serious matters — things like health care. She’s a strong believer and achiever in an area of nursing that’s important but often overlooked: government work.

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.” Nancy takes that aspect of the code very seriously.

Nancy represented El Paso for 13 years in the Texas Legislature, carrying every piece of important nursing and healthcare legislation during her tenure. El Paso’s a somewhat geographically isolated and disparate border city with 900,000 people with many health needs, and I imagine representing El Paso would be a tough job. Yet Nancy represented it well, being elected to every term from 1984 until her retirement in 1997.

Nancy was a revered member of the Lege, serving on the Public Health Committee and even as vice chair (with Chair Rob Junnell) of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Her healthcare expertise was greatly needed and sought after. Jim Willmann, longtime TNA Director of Governmental Affairs and known for understating said, “When Nancy was there, nursing was fortunate to have a legislator who was an insider. Whenever Nancy spoke on health care, it got legislators’ attention.”

With the exception of Eddie Bernice Johnson, senator from Dallas (now serving in the Congress) who was there when she first arrived, Nancy was the only registered nurse in the Texas Legislature. Unfortunately, she was the last.

On a sad note, recently Nancy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She has received her care and treatment at the hospital where I work, and during a visit I interviewed Nancy and her daughter Elizabeth for Texas Nursing.

Toni: “Nancy, what are you proudest of in your legislative service?”

Nancy: “I feel good about the work I did for AIDS. When I was first elected in 1984, the crisis of the AIDS epidemic was becoming public. Legislation was needed to cover many of the problems, like confidentiality, directives for healthcare workers (precautions), regulations, funding for education. My healthcare 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 BNE the money they needed for testing and checking out complaints against people. I worked with MHMR for smaller group homes (a more normal setting) for the mentally retarded and to review law suits for better care for custodial or institutionalized patients. I made sure state-funded institutions kept up with best practice standards.

“Serving in the legislature is a full-time job whether in session or not. I am glad I was there to give my input from the nursing perspective to healthcare 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.”

Toni: “Texans are better off because of your efforts, Nancy, and we appreciate your years of hard and serious work. We in NICU love having your daughter Elizabeth on staff. She’s fun, helpful, speaks Spanish, has a great mind and great hands. What did you think when she told you she was going into nursing?”

Nancy: “I was very happy. I thought she would be a very good nurse. She had lots of experience in the El Paso hospital and clinics as a dental assistant before she ever decided on nursing. In moments of crisis she reacts quickly and was always very independent. She can be tough, has stamina and does the right thing. Those are qualities important for a nurse.”

Later in neonatal, after the interview with Nancy, I asked Elizabeth what it was like being the daughter of such an accomplished nurse and legislator. Elizabeth said, “I remember helping mom with her campaigns, and that was always fun. Since becoming a nurse I have been continuously amazed at how often I see the results of her labor with the Legislature, especially back in El Paso. I could see how AIDS patients and those with mental illness were treated more humanely. It became clear that she was in large part responsible for those changes. She has made life better for a lot of Texans, and I am very proud of her.”

Nancy is receiving chemotherapy for her cancer at home. For those of you who know and remember Nancy, I’m sure she would enjoy hearing from you. Her address is 1501 Barton Springs Rd., #217, Austin, Texas 78704.

[Epilogue: Nancy Hanks McDonald died May 14, 2007 at the age of 72.]

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.