Trauma People: Debra Kitchens on leading and listening

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Debra Kitchens has lived the full spectrum of trauma care, from running EMS calls as a paramedic to doing scene calls as a flight nurse. As manager of trauma services at Prisma Health/Upstate in Greenville, South Carolina, she is helping to build a regional trauma network while still managing a local team of trauma professionals.

I recently interviewed Debra about her job and her life journey (edited transcript below). Debra talked about her unique career path and explained how she tries to lead by listening to others.


“I grew up watching the show Emergency with my Dad…”

My Dad was a firefighter and an EMT. So from early on I wanted to be an EMT/paramedic as well.

I am originally from Macon, Georgia, but I moved to Atlanta in my early 20s. When I was 25, I enrolled in EMT school while working full time in accounting. My first job in the field was with a private EMS service that also ran a 911 zone for Grady Hospital EMS. Nine months later I applied for a job with Grady EMS and was hired. I worked at Grady for 10 years, with my last 5 years as a training officer and supervisor.

Debra Kitchens, MBA, BSN, RN, CEN, TCRN, NRP

In 1992 I decided to go to nursing school. I obtained my associates degree in nursing at North Georgia College. While still working in EMS, I started my first ER nursing job at Athens Regional in Athens, Georgia. Later I worked in the ER at Gwinnett Medical Center. And still later I moved to Tifton, Georgia, and went to work at Tifton Regional. There, I worked in the ICU because I wanted to have ICU experience under my belt.

During my time in Tifton, LifeFlight in Atlanta started up their third helicopter program at Georgia Baptist Hospital. I applied and was hired along with 13 others. We started training in January 2000, and we started flying around March 1 of that year.

“Unfortunately in late July of that year, our helicopter suffered a fatal crash…”

The crash occurred about 5 minutes from base, and we lost our nurse, medic and pilot. I had just gotten off the helicopter and was due back the next morning for another shift. I am sure, as you can imagine, it was one of the worst times of my life for me and many others.

After a month or so, LifeFlight III started flying again. In the meantime, I moved back to Macon where I did some agency nursing while continuing to ride the helicopter.

One of the hospitals where I worked as an agency ER nurse was the Medical Center of Central Georgia (now Navicent Health). While on a quick break in the ER there, I spotted a job posting for a “trauma coordinator.”

“As I started reading the job description, my heart rate literally increased 30 beats per minute…”

As I read the trauma coordinator description, I was thinking, “This is me, this is me…”

I applied for the position right away and was hired in June 2002. I felt I finally found what I was looking for. The trauma coordinator job let me continue to work with all the disciplines I had previously experienced and still allowed me the opportunity for some clinical involvement. I was able to see what happened “after” the patient arrived to the hospital.

I worked as trauma manager at MCCG for the next 11 years. During my time, I became very involved with the Society of Trauma Nurses and ultimately the Advanced Trauma Care for Nurses (ATCN) course. My goal was to bring the course to Georgia, which we achieved with our state’s inaugural course in April 2005. I eventually became an ATCN Regional Director and Educator.

In July 2013, my regional director role took me to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to monitor a new course site. That is where I met Ashley Metcalf, my current clinical/PI coordinator, who was taking the class.

“Ashley saw me reading an American College of Surgeons ‘Green Book’…”

So she told me about an opening for a new manager of trauma with Greenville Memorial Hospital. Admittedly, I kind of blew her off, but I still gave her my contact information.

Over the following weeks, the director of operations/surgery at GMH called a few times, and I began to think about this opportunity more seriously. Finally, I realized that God was putting something in front of me and I decided I needed to pay attention. Fast forward: In October 2013, I started as the manager of trauma in Greenville, South Carolina.

My only regret was parting with my trauma medical director in Macon, Dr. Dennis Ashley — we had a great working relationship, and we both learned a lot from each other during those 11 years. Dr. Ashley was very supportive of my professional growth and he was a great mentor.

Greenville Memorial Hospital is now Prisma Health. When I first started here, the hospital was a state-designated Level I trauma center but the goal was to obtain Level I verification from the American College of Surgeons. Our stellar team was able to achieve that goal — along with ACS pediatric Level II verification — in just three years.

“I do believe that leaders and managers are only as good as their team…”

Leaders want their team members to succeed, so I feel a big part of leadership is providing your team with — or helping them create — what they need to be successful in their job.

I am very fortunate as I currently work with a group of rock stars. My immediate team consists of Ashley Metcalf, Mike Walls, Brianna Kimbrell and Taylor Bridwell. Additionally, there are people throughout the Prisma Health organization who work with us daily and allow us to be successful.

“I try to focus on being a good listener…”

This is one of the biggest things I have learned over the years. Our jobs are very fast paced and there is always a lot to get done and accomplish. I try to work on slowing down at times and just listening. Sometimes multitasking is required, but you have to be cognizant of what’s going on around you and be ready to put everything down and just give a person your time. For me, this is still a work in progress.

“And I am a big believer in saying thank you…”

Whether it is in verbal form or a gesture of some sort, it is important to acknowledge people and their contributions to the team, big or small.

When it comes to teamwork, I always come back to a quote from Helen Keller, who is one of my biggest heroes in history: “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”

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