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Nursing Experience Fueled Leader’s Passion for Training, Supporting Military Health

Image of Nursing Experience Fueled Leader’s Passion for Training, Supporting Military Health. Defense Health Agency’s Education and Training Directorate’s Dr. Lolita O’Donnell, chief of Executive Skills, Continuing Education & Libraries, and director of the Continuing Education Program Office, continues to use the compassion, leadership, and teaching skills she learned as a U.S. Air Force nurse. “I believe in the importance of lifelong learning. Teaching is a passion especially for nurses,” said O’Donnell. “It is one of our independent nursing functions.” (Photo by Robert Hammer, MHS Communications)

Empathy, commitment, and sense of service describe many of the nurses who serve in the Defense Health Agency’s 45 hospitals, 566 military ambulatory care and occupational health clinics, other organizations in the Military Health System.

Dr. Lolita O’Donnell’s military nursing roots took hold more than three decades ago, and although no longer a military nurse, those ideals still influence her duties as the DHA’s Education and Training Directorate’s chief of Executive Skills, Continuing Education & Libraries, and director of the Continuing Education Program Office.

O’Donnell was a clinical nurse at Malcolm Grow Medical Clinics and Surgery Center, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, when she received orders to deploy to, of all places, Upper Heyford, Bicester, England, in support of operations Desert Shield and Storm in 1991. During her 14 weeks in the country, O’Donnell and her team deployed a contingency hospital in one week by converting a schoolhouse into a hospital with an operating room, a recovery room, medical and surgical capabilities, and more.

“I learned so much in planning, organizing, and implementing all facets of clinical, administrative work to include policies, procedures, and clinical guidelines,” said O’Donnell, who was a U.S. Air Force captain serving as a charge nurse, infection control nurse, and lead orthopedic nurse at the clinic.

Two years later, she left the U.S. Air Force to become a quality and accreditation specialist, managing an incident reporting system with emphasis on trend analysis, data collection, and trend analysis, and coordinating the sentinel event program at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

After a decade, O’Donnell chose an academic career at George Mason University. On the surface, it may seem like a very different experience, going from a patient room to a classroom, but according to O’Donnell, both require teaching others. Her years of clinical nursing and advanced nursing education prepared her to share, educate, and lead, positioning her to be an effective educator.

“I believe in the importance of lifelong learning. Teaching is a passion especially for nurses,” said O’Donnell, who immigrated to the United States from Manila, Philippines. “It is one of our independent nursing functions.”

She spent a year as a contractor supporting the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Force Protection Readiness, before accepting a position with the Defense Centers for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. O’Donnell served in several leadership roles with that organization for almost a decade. Since 2017, she has been in her current role, responsible for providing accredited educational opportunities to civilian and military personnel focusing on best practices, interprofessional learning, and military readiness. All courses offered are designed to improve attendees’ knowledge, skills, and capabilities of health care teams throughout the agency while earning continuing education or continuing medical education credits.

O’Donnell’s experiences in the military training nurses, being a quality specialist at a civilian hospital, and being an associate professor of nursing, laid the foundation for her to be an effective teacher, mentor, and coach to future nursing professionals.

“The unique experiences in dealing with deployment challenges and working in an austere work environment certainly equipped me to be an innovative, creative, yet passionate caregiver,” she said.

Shortly after becoming DHA’s director, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland approved the agency’s strategic plan for the next five years. One of the plan’s initiatives, “Effective and Timely Acquisition, Development, Retention and Management of Agency’s Total Workforce,” would immediately impact O’Donnell and her team with the launch of the DHA Academy on April 1. DHA Academy is the agency’s new, consolidated training and professional development resource.

The team, consisting of staff from multiple directorates, built a single, web-based site for all DHA employees to seek relevant training to help them with their mission in support of DHA priorities.

“I can’t say enough about the team responsible for bringing the DHA Academy to fruition,” said O’Donnell. “They did an incredible job and will continue to refine the site and add relevant training for our workforce.”

“Education and training provide opportunities to all DHA staff and endless opportunities to excel,” O’Donnell added. “Providing comprehensive, competent, and ethical education and training opportunities will equip our health care providers with the critical skills and tools they need in the workplace to ensure safe, quality patient care always—anytime, anywhere. The impact of education on medical care, administration, leadership, and readiness cannot be overstated.”

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Last Updated: May 30, 2024
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