One of the first nurse practitioners (NPs) in Texas is retiring May 30, 2022, after 42 years of educating students and faculty at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston.
Professor Vaunette Fay, PhD, RNC, FNP, GNP, devoted much of her career to preparing nurses to provide compassionate care to older patients and secured substantial grants to extend geriatric education beyond the university and into the community.
“I always wanted to be a nurse,” she said. Her 4-year-old sister, Phyllis, died of cancer when Fay was only 9. “I went to school one day, and she was going to the doctor. She was admitted to Texas Children’s Hospital, and she never came home,” said Fay, who volunteered as a candy striper in high school. “That experience led me to thinking I wanted to be in medicine or in nursing.”
A lifelong Texan, Fay was born in Conroe and resided outside the Houston area only long enough to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, which she did in 1970.
In her first job as a registered nurse (RN), Fay worked the evening shift at Bellaire General Hospital. Officially, she was a labor and delivery nurse at first, but since the small hospital didn’t deliver that many babies, she gained lots of experience working in other areas, including intensive care. She moved full time into the ICU and became head nurse in 1972.
The University of Colorado opened the nation’s first nurse practitioner certificate program – for pediatric NPs – in 1965. In Texas, TWU began developing a family nurse practitioner (FNP) program in 1972 with a federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant, and Fay was among its first seven graduates in 1974.
“It was a challenge, because a lot of times they really didn’t know what to do with us,” Fay said of NP pioneers, who worked under physician supervision and functioned similarly to physicians’ assistants. “The role has greatly evolved since the ’70s, and we’ve gotten a lot more autonomy, although Texas is still not a state with full practice authority.”
Fay first worked as an FNP for Harris County Hospital District’s Sunnyside Clinic (now the MLK Clinic), then joined Cardiology Associates, where she cared for patients in the clinic and who were recovering from procedures at St. Luke’s.
Dr. Jenny Gaido and Dr. Cheryl Levine encouraged Fay to apply to the UTHealth Houston nursing school, and she came onboard as an instructor in 1981. She began by teaching undergraduate health assessment classes and supervised clinical rotations at nursing homes.
She liked working with adults and had the opportunity to shift her focus to geriatrics when Dr. Linda Kaeser joined the school as associate dean for research. Kaeser recruited Fay to help develop a geriatric nurse practitioner (GNP) program as well as a master’s level long-term care administrator’s program.
The first NP track offered at the nursing school was women’s health, followed by geriatrics. The GNP program became one of the largest in the nation and was ranked in the top 5 by U.S. New and World Reports.
Fay also played a key role in developing the nurse practitioner tracks when the Doctor of Nursing Practice program was established. She was active at the national level, working on taskforces to develop GNP competencies through the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties and the Gerontological Advance Practice Nurses Association.
Fay devoted her dissertation research to comorbidities in older adults with disabilities and secured her first GNP-focused contract for the school shortly after earning her PhD from TWU in 1992. Over the next two decades, she received a series of substantial grants from sources including the John A. Hartford Foundation and HRSA for geriatric education aimed at students, faculty, and practicing nurse.
Her leadership roles over the years included serving as associate director for the university’s Center on Aging and track director for gerontology. When the school moved into its new building in 2004, Fay served as assistant dean for e-learning and educational technology – a liaison between faculty and technical staff to help make the most of high-tech features of the simulation lab and classrooms. Fay began the transition of the lab from a skills lab into a simulation center.
For the past several years, one of the many hats Fay has worn is that of faculty coordinator of the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program, a federally and state-funded program administered through the Area Agency on Aging. UTHealth Houston’s contract for the program was first developed under Kaeser. “There are only two or three ombudsmen programs in the whole United States that are housed at academic institutions,” she noted with pride.
Fay’s work with educational grants made her well qualified to become the school’s director of continuing education, the position from which she will retire.
“We owe Dr. Fay a great debt of gratitude for her contributions to advancing gerontological education and for helping nurses and educators at all levels within our community achieve their potential,” said Associate Dean for Faculty Development Jessica Shank Coviello, DNP, RN, ANP-BC.
Fay’s impact on nursing education in Houston and Texas is evidenced by honors and accolades spanning more than a decade. She was inducted into The University of Texas Kenneth I. Shine, MD, Academy of Health Science Education in 2011, appointed to the Texas Council on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders and named the Suzie Conway Endowed Professor in Nursing in 2018, and recognized with the Emma Josephine Loeffelholz Award from the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center in 2021.
After retirement, Fay and her husband, Daniel, plan to do a little traveling and a lot of grandparenting. They have two adult sons and one grandson with another little Fay on the way.
“When I first came here, I never envisioned being here for this long,” Fay said. “I think one thing you can say that’s a constant here at the school of nursing is change. It’s been an exciting place to work.”
This article is based on an oral history interview recorded at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston on April 20, 2022. Watch a 12-minute excerpt.