Uptown Greenville, NC


ECU College of Nursing Celebrates 50 Years

ECU News Bureau
Sunday, April 10, 2011

The College of Nursing is East Carolina University’s oldest professional school. It marked its 50 years with a series of events and celebrations that concluded Saturday with a gala at Rock Spring Center in Greenville.

Nursing has grown from a tiny school training mostly rural nurses for eastern North Carolina to a college that graduates more new nurses than any school in North Carolina.

Milestones mark that journey. From offering its first master’s degree program in 1977 to enrolling doctoral students in 2002, the college’s development mirrors the growth and complexity of the nursing profession itself. That 50-year journey and its themes — versatility, leadership, skill and innovation — are best seen through the experiences and accomplishments of graduates representing the five decades of the college’s life.


Donna Thigpen, change maker

Dr. Donna Thigpen’s first job was typical for a rural nursing graduate from East Carolina in the 1960s.

She worked as a public-health nurse in Pitt County, recording birth certificates and checking on babies born at home. She traveled a lot of dirt roads by herself, but was not afraid.

“The uniform was my shield, and people knew I was there to help,” said Thigpen.

Her most recent full-time role — the one from which she retired five years ago — was as president of Bismarck State College. There, she successfully lobbied the North Dakota legislature to start associate degree nursing programs in the state’s community college system.

That meant changing a state law requiring nurses to have baccalaureate degrees.

In between, she taught nursing at the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University), started the associate degree nursing program at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville and served as dean of student services at 14,000-student Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C. She recently took a role as a consultant for Edgecombe Community College, helping its nursing program obtain accreditation.

Thigpen credits her training for that versatility. Nursing teaches you to work with people, to think critically and solve problems, she said.

“No other degree would have prepared me better to be a college president,” Thigpen said.

Thigpen’s experiences mirror the myriad opportunities that have opened to ECU nursing graduates in the five decades of the school’s life.

As a brand-new public-health nurse she supervised granny midwives. She remembers in particular a premature 3-pound baby in a pasteboard box, surrounded by flat whiskey bottles filled with hot water to keep her warm.

Decades later, as a college president she led an effort that increased the supply of nursing graduates in a rural state.

“In this country we need twice as many nurses as we have,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of old folks and no one to take care of us.”

— Crystal Baity


Bill Vurnakes, non-traditionalist

The path that carried Bill Vurnakes to nurse anesthesia is as non-traditional as it gets.

Besides being male when he enrolled as a nursing student in the 1970s, he was a Vietnam veteran, the son of Greek immigrants and already had one college degree — in business.

He earned his nursing degree in 1976, but it took another 15 years for him to reach his larger goal: finish anesthesia school. In 1991, at age 48, he took his first job as a new nurse anesthesia graduate at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville. He is still there.

“I absolutely love what I do and wouldn’t do anything else,” Vurnakes said.

His diverse path points to the role non-traditional students play in the College of Nursing and its development.

“He brought a perspective that other students didn’t have,” said Dr. Phyllis Horns, now vice chancellor for health sciences, who was Vurnakes’ pediatric nursing instructor. “He asked challenging questions and participated in discussions. In those days we didn’t have that many men students.”

Now, Vurnakes gives back by helping lead younger anesthetists. A recent bout with chest pains led to triple bypass surgery, he said, and a much enriched understanding of his patients.

— Doug Boyd


Donna Zekonis’ unexpected calling

Donna Zekonis transferred to ECU to play basketball and earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education. She emerged an emergency room nurse, and now, a family nurse practitioner.

An unexpected personal tragedy shifted her path as a student in 1983. A drunk driver hit the car carrying her, her twin brother and her father home to Monroe from Greenville. Her brother and father died. Zekonis was seriously injured.

She reassessed her plan, drawn by a calling to help the sick and injured.

“My intentions were to be an exercise psychologist or basketball coach, but I had an epiphany,” she said. “Maybe the world didn’t need another coach.”

Zekonis enrolled in nursing, sought a second bachelor’s degree, took an Emergency Medical Technician course and volunteered with Eastern Pines Fire and Rescue as a paramedic.

Her career mirrors the variety of options that opened to nursing graduates in the 1980s thanks to rapid advances in care.

She worked as a staff nurse on the night shift in the emergency room at Pitt County Memorial Hospital. In 16 years she held a number of roles, from direct patient care to staff education to forensic evidence collection.

In 2009 she earned her master’s degree in nursing and in 2010 began work as a family nurse practitioner in the East Carolina Heart Institute at PCMH.

Change in two decades has been swift, she said. Diagnostic equipment and technology now allow nurses to deliver higher levels of care more rapidly and in far less institutional settings.

“A lot of the procedures we used to do in the emergency room we now do at the bedside,” said Zekonis. “What was in-patient care, people are now sent home.”

— Crystal Baity


Brenda Myrick, paying it forward

It took a number of years, but Brenda Myrick found out her grandmother was right.

She should go to nursing school, Evelyn Boone, Myrick’s grandmother, told her when she first arrived at ECU in 1977.  After sampling psychology and biology courses, Myrick ended up with an associate’s degree in nursing from Pitt Community College.

In 1992, 15 years and one child later, Myrick graduated with a bachelor’s of nursing degree from ECU. Now, she’s a graduate student in ECU’s nursing leadership option. The experience is nothing like her former college days.

“All my courses are online,” Myrick said. “It is totally different from being in a classroom setting.”

Myrick is administrator of operative services at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, where she has worked for 25 years. She manages a 23-bed operating room and 132 full-time employees in the level one trauma center.

Myrick’s background let her sample pediatric, operating room and intensive care nursing. Then she spent a decade in the emerging field of nursing informatics as a hospital systems analyst.

Myrick also steps forward to help others outside her professional role. For example, she is the first African-American to serve as chair or president of any of ECU’s affiliated boards.

“She breaks down barriers with class, diplomacy and a servant-style leadership that is an example to others,” said Paul Clifford, president of the ECU Alumni Association.

— Crystal Baity


Ryan Lewis, Rookie of the Year

Ryan Lewis thought he wanted to be a doctor until he realized he was more interested in the therapeutic aspects of medicine.

“From my experience, medicine is more concrete and diagnostic and nursing is more about being therapeutic and serving others in the spirit of humility,” said Lewis, 24, a 2008 graduate of the College of Nursing.

Lewis works at Pitt County Memorial Hospital as a staff nurse in the Medical Intermediate Unit/Respiratory Intermediate Unit. He is a graduate nursing student at ECU, with a goal of becoming a nursing educator.

Men are no longer anomalies in the field of nursing. Yet there are still more women nurses than men. That has prompted Lewis to be active in the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, which promotes gender diversity in the workplace. He is a national board member.

He also earned the Rookie of the Year award in 2009 from the North Carolina Nurses Association, where he serves on the northeast region board of directors. Lewis said he sees time invested in those professional associations as an opportunity to be a change agent.

Lewis’ aspirations illustrate the distance the College of Nursing has traveled in 50 years: from training clinical nurses in response to a dire public need to training advanced nurse educators who direct the future of the profession.

— Jennifer Julian


1960 — First students admitted to ECU nursing.

1977 — The master’s of science in nursing program is established and the first graduate students enroll.

1987 — The school of nursing joins the school of medicine and school of allied health sciences in the ECU health sciences division. (Both schools of nursing and allied health sciences were renamed colleges in 2007).

1998 — The school offers its first online course, the beginning of a nationally recognized distance education program.

2001 — The doctor of philosophy in nursing program is added and the first students enroll in 2002.

2007 — Enrollment reaches 1,000 students in all nursing programs. (The college now has more than 1,100 students).

2009 — Designated a Center of Excellence by the National League for Nursing.

College of Nursing Then & Now

47 - Number of students enrolled in fall 1960

17 - Number of graduates in spring 1964 (all bachelor’s of science degrees, all women)

4 - Number of faculty in fall 1960 – including the dean

1,100 - Number of students enrolled in fall 2010

204 - Number of graduates in spring 2010 (136 BS prelicensure, 23 RN to BSN students, 43 master’s students, two doctorates)

105 - Number of faculty in fall 2010