As a teenager in 1979, Gina Bullington stepped into what was then a two-room, four-bed emergency room at TriStar Horizon Medical Center in Dickson, Tennessee. The long-time Dickson resident spent that summer as an emergency room technician recording names and birthdays of incoming patients on a piece of paper — there were no electronics at the time. Forty years later, as Chief Nursing Officer in the same hospital, now with 25+ ER beds, she is valued as an instrumental player in the hospital’s history and success. Celebrating her decades of service and dedication, TriStar Horizon pointed to her compassion, commitment, and integrity; these qualities, paired with an unwavering love for patient care in the hospital setting, make her a vital member of the team.
During her first summer in the emergency room, Gina’s emergency department director told her that she would one day assume that position, and as it turns out, that director was right. Armed with a nursing degree from Tennessee Tech and a master’s degree in Critical Care Nursing from Vanderbilt, Gina rose through the ranks from volunteer to Chief Nursing Officer, a position she has held for more than 14 years.
Meet this amazing nurse, mother and champion of her local community, Gina Bullington, our newest FACE of TriStar.
Tell us about your background and long career with TriStar.
I loved the ER. It was so exciting. I went to college and worked in the ER during summers and over Christmas. I went to Tennessee Tech for nursing school. When I graduated, there weren’t any open positions in the ER, so I worked for a short period of time in orthopedics. Then, Jean called when there was an open position.
I became a director in the emergency room, then emergency department director, then Chief Nursing Officer for the last 14 years. Most nurses have one nurse who inspired and mentored them; mine was Jean Morrison.
Tell us about one of your first memories in the emergency room.
There were so many things that happened in that little four-bed emergency room. One of the biggest things I remember was the first time I saw a patient in cardiac arrest. When we called that code, a team of people came in, and I remember watching them respond to that patient and how they then communicated with the family. That was one of the most amazing sights. You had three people in the emergency room (a nurse, a registrar and a doctor), but when an emergency came in, you called for help, and a team of people responded.
What has been the biggest change you’ve witnessed since joining the hospital 40 years ago?
The biggest change happened years ago when we switched from family practice to internal medicine physicians taking care of inpatients in the hospital. That was a significant change for the care of patients and those providers. Previously, the providers took care of our patients, but they would come in the morning and then come at night to follow up. With the hospitalist model, doctors are in the hospital with your patients all of the time. All-day long, they are there to see and monitor the patients. This raised the bar on how patients are taken care of. All of those physicians are internal medicine trained, and their specialty is hospital medicine. It is amazing how much this has impacted the patients and allowed for the physicians in private practice to add more appointments for follow-up care.
TriStar Horizon’s nursing units have received recognition for its excellence. What are the keys to consistent exemplary performance?
Multiple factors make a unit become a Unit of Distinction, and it starts with the unit leader. In any unit, the leader wants their staff to stay with them forever. Shanta Hinson, the director of the first unit to be named a Unit of Distinction, has a philosophy that if you’re happy working in her unit, she wants you to stay for as long as you’d like. If you would prefer working in another department, she will help you get there. She is a very innovative leader.
What do you think contributes to the overall success of this hospital’s culture?
The first thing is our ability to work with nurses and help them grow in their pathway — whatever that may be. The second thing is the culture of caring. It sounds cliche, but we have to care about our employees in the work environment like they expect to be cared for by their families. And we have to recognize people’s contributions. We have a ceremony once a quarter where 25-35 people are recognized for exemplary performance — every quarter, not yearly. Being willing to help our nurses grow, recognizing them, and rewarding them is huge for the unit of distinction.
The third thing would be practicing with evidence-based nursing care. Letting nurses have a unit-based council and have self-governance is another thing that has helped TriStar Horizon have incredibly performing units.
Also, we have an amazing leadership team. Dustin Greene (TriStar Horizon’s CEO) has been the strategic visionary for the hospital. The way we have grown in the past five years has been phenomenal, and we have grown without destroying the culture of the hospital. That is what has kept TriStar Horizon special.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I don’t look at what I have accomplished, but what this facility has accomplished. You can look back and see that we were the first hospital in the state of Tennessee in over 20 years to receive the Level 3 Trauma Center designation and that we opened a new satellite campus, which has a freestanding emergency room as well as outpatient imaging and oncology services. We have sustained a low nurse turnover for a number of years, and that reflects on the culture of the nursing leaders and their ability to keep people in the organization. What makes me proud is when the facility is recognized as a high-performing, excellent place for patients.
Currently, what are your top priorities as CNO?
I want to continue to grow unit-based councils in all of the nursing areas — well-developed, unit-based councils that report to a hospital-wide nursing unit professional council — to move more towards involving the nurses in the care that we provide and let nurses guide the practice. The practice can be elevated by the nurses. We have unit-based council in some places, and I want to expand that across the organization because I think that will raise the bar on the level of care.
Can we expect to see you still at Horizon in 40 years? What do you hope your legacy will be when you retire?
I don’t have any plans for retirement, but I doubt I will make it 40 more years! I would love to continue to watch this hospital grow, as we continue to add new service lines and new standards for nursing. I am excited to see what the hospital accomplishes in the next 3-5 years. I hope that people remember me for being a leader who is willing to listen and allows others to excel.
Thank you to Gina for 40 years of dedication to your nursing career and community. We look forward to seeing what you accomplish next!