ETSU faculty member at the helm of Tennessee Nurses Association

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JOHNSON CITY (October 7, 2014) – East Tennessee State University adjunct faculty member Billie Sills never imagined herself as the president of the professional organization that represents nurses across the entire state of Tennessee. But with a penchant for doing things that “just make sense,” Sills is now halfway through her two-year term at the helm of the Tennessee Nurses Association.

“I started my nursing career 60 years ago. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to be a nurse,” Sills said. “It’s just the fire in my belly. And I love it more today than ever.”

While becoming a registered nurse, Sills worked in Rochester, Minn. at the St. Mary’s School of Nursing before moving to California to do her post-graduate work.

“Then I joined the Air Force,” she said. “I was a U.S. Air Force flight nurse. I loved it.”

But an injury forced Sills to retire from military service with a disability. That’s when she decided to head back to school to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing.

She spent much of her professional career working in a variety of nursing roles in both Florida and Texas. Following a short stint as the director of quality resource management at a hospital in Kentucky, Sills took on the role of director of nursing at the NHC Health Care Center in Johnson City in 1999.

She has served as an assistant professor at ETSU since 2003, teaching classes that include Communications for Health Professionals, Introduction to Professional Nursing, Ethical/Legal Aspects in Nursing, and Health Care Organization and the Law.

“I want to instill in my students that love and that pride in being a nurse,” Sills said. “I want nurses to stand tall and say, ‘I’m a nurse.’”

In October 2013, Sills took over as the president of the TNA, an organization aimed at promoting and protecting the registered nurse and advancing the practice of nursing.

“Nursing has been good to me, so I decided I wanted to give back,” Sills said. “I believe in our professional organization and what it stands for.”

During her tenure, Sills wants to increase membership to the TNA, something she said has become less of a priority over the years with those who become nurses.

“I was expected to join the professional organization when I became a nurse. That’s not the case anymore, but it is so important,” she said. “These organizations are the spokesperson for the profession. If lawmakers want to know how nurses feel about something, they turn to the professional organizations to get an opinion.”

Through the TNA, Sills said she is helping to educate legislators – often in face-to-face meetings – on not just nursing issues, but overall health care issues.

Equally important, she said, is the education of those in the nursing field.

“We have to be educating nurses much more on advocacy, nursing’s role and politics – how all these regulations that come in have changed nursing,” she said. “And we’ve got to get people who come into nursing to understand this is a profession, not just a paycheck.”

Next year, Sills said the TNA will likely be embroiled in an attempt to garner “full practice authority” for many nurses in Tennessee. Full practice authority is the collection of state practice and licensure laws that allow advanced practice registered nurses to practice fully under the exclusive licensure authority of the state board of nursing. If the state approves giving ANPs full practice authority, it would allow nurse practitioners to do much of what a doctor does, including writing prescriptions.

“We are basically saying nurses should be allowed to practice to the fullest extent of their education without barriers in doing so,” Sills said. “We’re going for full authority. And it’s going to be a fight.”

It is a battle, she said, that is worth fighting.

“Today’s nurses are expert clinicians. We are researchers. We are scientists,” she said. “We are the best coordinators of care that there are.”

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