If Novant Health nursing administrator Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam could sit down and write a letter to the young Cindy who just starting out nearly 40 years ago, it would be quick and to the point:

· Follow your heart and give it your all.

· Always keep the patient at the center of everything you do.

· Commit to lifelong learning.

Those who’ve worked side-by-side over the years with Jarrett-Pulliam, chief nursing officer for Novant Health in the greater Winston-Salem market, say she’s relentlessly walked the talk for the profession she’s dedicated her life to serving.

And as health care celebrates National Nurses Week May 6-12, Novant Health is announcing the Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to greater Winston-Salem market nurses who are pursuing further education to receive a baccalaureate, master’s, doctorate of nursing or philosophy doctorate of nursing degree.

“The scholarship means so much to me,” said Jarrett-Pulliam, who is well-known among the nursing staff for regularly suggesting they advance their education. “Things are changing all the time in health care and it’s easy to become obsolete very, very quickly.”

Described by her peers as one of the most compassionate, authentic and ethical people they know, Jarrett-Pulliam was also recently named one of the 2018 Outstanding Women in Business by the Triad Business Journal.

Just call her ‘CJP’

The hyphenated last name that came when she married often leads to the much shorter handle of CJP along the teeming halls of Forsyth Medical Center. But for the record, her full name is Kimberly Lucinda Jarrett-Pulliam.

When she joined Novant Health in 2013, Jarrett-Pulliam made a name for herself almost overnight by forever emphasizing the importance of “accountability and consistency” among the nursing staff.

Those weren’t merely buzzwords meant for dressing up PowerPoint presentations, said Denise Mihal, executive vice president and chief nursing and clinical operations officer for Novant Health. But rather, the catalyst that fueled Jarrett-Pulliam’s decision-making.

For instance, she’ll go straight to patients’ rooms to get their perspective if it’s needed on a particular issue, when some administrators might leave that to others. At the same, she’s careful to get input from everyone on the care team before forming conclusions.

“If she has a question, she will stalk you,” Mihal said with a smile. “But she’s not out there looking for someone to blame, she’s looking to see what happened so that it doesn’t happen again.” On that point, Mihal said she would add “fairness” to Jarrett-Pulliam’s mantra of consistency and accountability.

Jarrett-Pulliam is also known for pushing her nurse managers to move the bottom 10 percent of performers off their unit, said Janet Bright, who works for Jarrett-Pulliam as chief nursing officer at Forsyth Medical Center.

To outsiders, it might sound harsh, but Bright said she came to understand it was best for everyone. “The under-performers leave issues for others to clean up. When they are gone, the high performers end up staying because they’re happier and the problems take care of themselves,” Bright said.

As Jarrett-Pulliam said, “There’s nothing wrong with pointing out to someone else that they’re in the wrong job.” And, she notes, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad nurse. Often, she said, the solution is finding a unit that better fits their work style. Regardless, she said: “Patient care gets better.”

Remembering the day

Last July, Jarrett-Pulliam had a mild cough that she couldn’t shake, and went to see the doctor.

Her boss, Mihal, will always remember the date: July 18, 2017. Jarrett-Pulliam was diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer that had spread to her bones, lungs and lymph nodes. It was inoperable. She had one year to live.

There are moments, Jarrett-Pulliam said, when the news still sneaks up and stuns her all over again. “It was such a shocker, because I’d always worked 16 to 18 hours a day for 40 years,” with no health issues whatsoever, she said. When she walked into one of her first chemo treatments she spied a patient with a “Cancer Sucks” T-shirt and thought to herself: That’s a bit much.

She gets it now, she said, and jokes that she may just pick one up.

Forever preaching the importance of transparency in nursing, she may have taken things too far when she broke the news to devastated colleagues. “She’d walk into the start of a meeting and announce she had a year to live,” Mihal recalled. “We’d practically be picking people up off the floor.” Not a lot would get done those days.

“I was so upfront people thought I was in denial,” Jarrett-Pulliam said. But looking back now at how she handled things at first, “I had a real lack of sensitivity. And I guess, frankly, I was surprised that so many people” and she choked up a bit here, “that so many people would care that I was sick.”

Pulliam stopped working in March when her old pace was now too much for her. “I was just getting started at Novant Health. It just made me sick … I had so much I wanted to do,” she said. "I’m supposed to be working … It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Friends and family explained she had a new job: putting herself first, for once.

“And so, what’s the takeaway?” Jarrett-Pulliam asked. “We only have today. Make the most of it because that may be all you’re going to get.”

‘Heaven on Earth’

At 9:59 p.m. on April 19, there was news to celebrate: Palmer Bailey Pulliam came into the world at 9 lbs. 6 oz. and 20.5 inches long. Jarrett-Pulliam had a grandchild. “She’s heaven on Earth,” she said. “We’re proud of her already.” She visits nearly every day. Each one is a gift.

Jarrett-Pulliam said she will always be grateful for the care she received from her oncologist, Dr. Franklin Chen, and the entire team. She said she has received the remarkable care that Novant Health tries to deliver. “There were many people who did not know who I was, who took such good care of me.”

For instance, she’s spent a lifetime of driving home the importance of compassionate care with thousands of nurses she’s worked with. Just touching a patient on the arm can make a huge difference in how patients feel about their care, research has shown. “I have now experienced that myself,” she said.

As she surveys her career and time at Novant Health, Jarrett-Pulliam said she is grateful for all the support of her colleagues, especially Mihal. “She’s an incredible leader and I’m so honored to be on her team.”

And, Jarrett-Pulliam added, “I think I can say that I left more than I took.” She is leaving nursing care in good hands, thanks to strong recruiting and hiring.

“I’m so pleased with the new wave of nurses we have coming in, they’re so bright and excited,” she said. “I’ve never seen a group of nurses so excited about joining the hospital in such large numbers.”

And her thoughts go back to that granddaughter, and she allows herself the guilty pleasure of suggesting a possible profession.

You can guess what that might be.

Want to help?

To donate to the Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam Scholarship Fund, click here. Under gift designations, click “Choose an Area of Support” and select “Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam Scholarship Fund” on the popup menu. Mail checks to the Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation, 1701 South Hawthorne Road, Winston-Salem, NC 27103. Please note donation is for the Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam Scholarship Fund. This scholarship is available to Novant Health nurses in the Winston-Salem area.