For the last three years, Rachel Culpepper has served as IU Health West’s general medicine service line director. Now, she’s making her way to the statehouse.
By Charlotte Stefanski, email@example.com, writer for IU Health's Indianapolis Suburban Region
Before finding her calling as a nurse, Rachel Culpepper earned her degree in psychology and worked in an in-patient psychiatric unit. While she loved the work, she felt like something was missing.
One day, a patient began having a seizure and Culpepper was the first to notice. After she caught the patient and helped secure them, a nurse came into the room to provide care.
“She came in and did all the other cool stuff to help rescue them and get the help that they needed,” Culpepper recalls. “That's when I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going do that.’”
That moment inspired Culpepper to go back to nursing school, and in March 2020—just as the first wave of COVID-19 hit Indiana—she joined the IU Health West team.
Before coming to IU Health, Culpepper had plenty of experience under her belt, from the bedside in the Intensive Care unit (ICU) up to director-level leadership.
For the last three years, she’s served as IU Health West’s general medicine service line director, overseeing the Emergency department, ICU, Acuity Adaptable and Med-Surg units and Dialysis.
Much of her early work was focused on COVID-19 surging and coming up with innovative ways to treat patients during that time, including opening up the ambulance bay as a care unit and expanding the hospital’s ICU capabilities.
“Although it was very challenging on the team, we rallied around what the community needed at the time, so I'm really proud of the team,” she says. “It was probably one of the hardest points in my career, their careers and everyone's career so far. But I really appreciated their capability to meet the demands of patients.”
Saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity
Culpepper has always been a natural-born leader and someone who feels comfortable taking charge. That mentality has opened several avenues for her—even ones she didn’t imagine taking.
As she began sharpening her bedside skills early on in her career, mentors took note of her skills and began recommending her for leadership roles. She ended up being a charge nurse before having a year of nursing under her belt.
“When you're the charge nurse, when you're the manager, or when you're the director, it doesn't always mean that you have to be the expert in everything,” she explains. “Instead, it's leading the team and shepherding the team to doing the things that we need to be doing for our patients or colleagues.”
Culpepper also knew she wanted to continue her education and earn her master’s degree, and to find a field in nursing that was right for her.
She first went on the path to become a nurse practitioner, but while completing courses, she felt it wasn’t for her. Instead, she again found purpose in nursing leadership courses.
“It was really reassuring to me, as soon as I kind of switched my focus that I was like, ‘Yes, this feels right, this feels like the right shoe size.’”
Because of that experience, she encourages aspiring leaders to look for any open opportunities. It might not help them achieve their end goal, but it will provide a learning experience.
Culpepper rarely says no to an opportunity, and because of that, she’s been able to work in departments and types of care that are new to her, like anesthesia and obstetrics, and approach nursing from different perspectives, like education and leadership.
“The greatest thing about nursing is there's so many avenues you can take, more so now than ever, which is fabulous. But sometimes people shy away from those opportunities because they don’t know the field or don’t feel like an expert,” Culpepper says. “That's why I always encourage aspiring leaders to say yes and learn. It's OK to be a learner.”
“When I came to West, I acquired the Emergency department, which was another new area for me,” she adds. “I spent a lot of time—and still do—asking questions, observing and trying to walk a mile in their shoes.”
The teams at West have also made that an easy process for Culpepper, and she says one of her favorite things about the hospital is the willingness to collaborate.
Leaders work together to help teams feel supported, while also ensuring patients’ needs are met.
“It's more of, ‘How can we come together to find the best solution?’ rather than pushing the responsibility to somebody else,” she says.
Giving nurses a voice through advocacy
While Culpepper works closely with her IU Health West teams to find solutions, she’s also working alongside nurses throughout Indiana and the country.
Connecting with professional nursing organizations was instilled in Culpepper early in her career when her mother, who was also a nurse, recommended she become involved.
Once she took on a manager role, Culpepper immediately sought out ways to get involved with other leaders across the state and joined the Indiana Organization for Nursing Leadership (IONL). In her very first meeting, she nominated to be the organization’s president elect.
The IONL also encourages leaders to become involved with the national group, the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), where she’s been a member for seven years and currently serves as the Region 5 board director, the co-chair of the Advocacy Committee and the chair for the Education Council.
“I represent 11,000 nurse leaders across the nation on that board,” Culpepper explains. “More specifically, I'm the region five representative, so I collaborate with leaders in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Culpepper first learned about advocacy when earning her doctorate degree, and at first, she wasn’t interested. Politics was not her favorite subject, but after her class took a trip to Washington D.C., she felt compelled to continue. Six years later, she’s still training other nursing leaders how to speak with their legislators and policymakers on key priorities.
Recently, she traveled to the Indiana Statehouse to testify in front of the Senate Healthcare Committee in favor of House Bill 1460, which would allow for a more modernized and standardized process to decrease the wait time for licensed healthcare workers
After months of advocating, the bill was passed in the senate healthcare committee.
“That was really cool because it was happening before my eyes. There weren’t many questions, because we articulated well on the downstream impacts that this would have and benefits to getting licensed professionals to the bedside faster—using what we learned through the COVID-19 pandemic and making it more standardized,” Culpepper explains. “I don't think anyone could argue that getting licensed professionals to the bedside is a bad thing, but it was really good to have that experience. I hope to get to do it again.”
Up next, on a federal level, the AONL is focusing on workplace violence in healthcare settings, which has skyrocketed in recent years. The group hopes to pass the SAVE Act: HB 2584. This bill would provide federal protection to healthcare workers against physical assault or intimidation—similar to laws in the airline industry.
The bill, House Bill 2584, would also provide educational resources and funding for hospitals to train teams on violence prevention and perhaps provide equipment necessary to promote a safe work environment.
While federal legislation moves at a slower pace, it also gives Culpepper and the AONL more time to train members to help them connect with their legislators across the country.
“If it's a representative in Florida, I'm not his or her constituents, so my words might not mean as much. But when his voters constituents come to him or her, that carries a little bit more weight,” Culpepper explains. “A lot of our work is training and giving the skills to people to be able to do that work in their district or in Washington D.C.”
‘You make a difference’
National Nurses Week is celebrated annually during the week of May 6 – 12, ending on the birthdate of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale.
This year’s theme is “you make a difference,” and Culpepper stresses that even if her team is having a stressful or difficult day, they’re still impacting patients’ lives—even though some days it might not feel like it.
A small difference is still a difference, she adds.
“We, as nurses, get to see patients in their most vulnerable state. We get to see them bring life into this world, and then we also are there with them comforting their families at the end of life,” Culpepper says. “There isn't any greater privilege than to be a part of that journey for somebody. I really hope that they know that they impact lives, much more than what they probably realize.”