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Appling Recalls Nursing Career as Lifetime of Opportunity


Nancy Appling, MSN, CNOR, CRNFA, ACNP-BC, was sure she wanted to study literature or journalism until she attended her cousin’s graduation from nursing school.

“The ceremony moved me. It spoke to me, and I realized that I wanted to do something noble with my life, something that was more than just about me,” she said.

Nancy Appling

What followed was a four-decade nursing career in which Appling applied her nursing and organizational expertise to develop such important programs as the Advanced Cardiac Life Support Program and the Multidisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Clinic at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Memphis. But, perhaps most important to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing, Appling established the Registered Nurse First Assistant (RNFA) program at the UTHSC College of Nursing in 2017.

Throughout Appling’s nursing career, “I would just see these needs and that would excite me. I would do the research to see what I needed to do to go out and make it happen.”

The nursing profession opens the door to countless career opportunities. The American Nurses Association predicts that there will be more registered nurse jobs available through 2022 than in any other profession in the country. UTHSC College of Nursing offers a 12-month bachelor of nursing science degree, and applications are open for the January 2021 cohort. More information at uthsc.edu/nursing/future-students.php.

Appling will retire from the College of Nursing at the end of June, and plans are in place for a seamless continuation of the RNFA program.

A formal education program for RN first assistants is vital, she said. “There are surgeons and hospitals in Tennessee who rely on nurses to first assist in surgery so that they can complete the operating room schedule. The citizens of Tennessee deserve educated, skilled first assistants to provide perioperative care, and UTHSC College of Nursing now provides that education.”

Appling’s efforts in academia have not gone unnoticed. Nationally, she has been recognized with the 2020 AORN Outstanding Achievement in Perioperative Education, Clinical or Academic Award. AORN is the American Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses – the leader in advocating for excellence in perioperative practice in health care.

At the state level, Appling received the 2019 Louise Browning Political Nurse Award from the Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA). The award recognized her successful efforts in advocating for inclusion of APRNs in the legislation for Title Protection as Registered Nurse First Assistants. She also received the 2020 AANP Nurse Practitioner State Award for excellence, given annually to one nurse practitioner in each state who demonstrates excellence in her area of practice.

From the beginning of her career, Appling found herself in the operating room, assisting in surgery. “I just fell in love with perioperative nursing.” Her nursing career coincided with the rise in cardiothoracic surgery, and she was on the heart surgery and transplant team at St. Louis University. “I was in the pioneering stage of preserving life through cardiothoracic surgery,” she said. “It was fascinating, fast-paced and cutting-edge.”

Originally from Memphis, Appling began her nursing career in St. Louis because she and her husband moved there following their wedding – just after her first year of college. She attended and graduated from the Missouri Baptist Hospital School of Nursing. But when the family returned to Memphis in 1991, she was asked to help a young surgeon reopen the cardiothoracic surgery program at the VA Hospital in Memphis, and she began a 25-year career at that hospital. During that time she also attained a BSN from Union University and an MSN in acute care nursing from the UTHSC College of Nursing.  Appling sat for the first CRNFA credentialing exam in 1993 and was the first CRNFA hired by the Memphis VA.

Appling was planning to retire from the VA in 2017, when she received a call from the College of Nursing about starting an RNFA program. UTHSC College of Nursing started the program that year. It is the only RNFA program in Tennessee and one of a few RNFA programs in a university setting nationwide. Including current students, the program has educated 19 individuals.

Appling has been recognized with many awards during her career, including the UTHSC Alumni Award in 2005 for academic and clinical excellence. But the Daisy Award for Extraordinary Nursing Faculty awarded in 2019 was especially meaningful because it was awarded by fellow faculty members for exceptional impact on her students, she said.

“I am excited when I see my graduates grow into skilled professionals, she said. “I know that my life has made a difference in the lives of others, and it is more than just about me.”