By Amy Wolf
It’s every child’s nightmare: Both parents are rushed to the hospital with life-threatening emergencies. But that terrifying personal experience—and his parents’ recovery—inspired Mark Miller to put aside a 20-year management career and earn a master’s in nursing at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.
“I was in health care leadership, and I always found myself drawn to any interactions with our patients,” Miller said. “But it was a personal experience in the ICU and the reaction of me, an only child worried about the mortality of his parents, that really triggered this idea that at 40 years old I could go back to nursing school.”
Miller’s parents are doing well now. He is thankful for their health and the rare life pause caring for them gave him to examine his future.
“I am so thankful for those ICU nurses. I knew when I joined the honorable profession of bedside nursing, I wanted to be that person that made health care a little less scary for the patient,” he said.
Miller was a student in VUSN’s Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program and working as a nurse in the emergency department during the height of the COVID pandemic. He said his training, as well as the relationships he formed, made a huge impact on the type of caregiver he has become.
“Finding your heart and not locking it away, using the skills that you hope can help this person, and making sure you’re communicating to patients and families in a very human way—that’s the intersectionality I focus on,” he said.
HEALTH CARE THOUGHT LEADER
Miller believes his health care business background, combined with his bedside nursing expertise, puts him in a unique position to be a thought leader to improve the U.S. health care system.
Now a nurse practitioner, he is also working toward the School of Nursing’s doctor of nursing practice degree, with a focus on executive leadership in health policy.
“We’re coming out of a pandemic that nearly crippled our health care system. We have what’s being referred to as ‘nursing shortages,’ but I believe it’s more nurses fleeing the bedside,” Miller said. “How do we bridge those two things from a provider perspective—providing great care to the patient who’s in need and managing the business side? I want to be a part of finding those solutions.”
Miller grew up in a small Tennessee town and warns that rural hospital closures and limits put on nurse practitioners, especially in rural areas, are two of the biggest hurdles to people not getting proper health care.
“We are graduating so many excellent advanced nurse practitioners in this state, but we are restricted in our practice,” he said. “I want to be able to translate concerns and solutions in a cohesive, unified way so that our legislators can make the changes necessary and folks in Tennessee can get the health care they deserve.”
Miller said earning a spot in the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership at Vanderbilt has been one of the most transformative experiences of his life.
The fellowship program brings together student leaders from across Vanderbilt’s graduate and professional schools to work with each other and the Nashville community to help find solutions to moral issues such as justice, poverty, homelessness, racism and how to perform trauma-informed care, among others.
“That fellowship has allowed me to examine the intersectionality of health care and all kinds of social issues, and it has truly been life-altering,” he said.
Miller was also nominated by the School of Nursing’s leadership to take part in a special summer program called Healing Politics. It’s sponsored by Yale and Duke universities and designed to motivate and train nurses and midwives to run for elected office.
“Nursing is one of the most trusted professions, and nurses have the unique skill set of helping solve really challenging problems in a collaborative way, focused on consensus building and forward movement,” he said. “I could see being someone’s health policy adviser and helping make health care better.”
WHERE HAVE YOU FOUND BELONGING AT VANDERBILT?
“I found belonging by trying to create belonging. I entered Vanderbilt right as COVID was really ramping up, so everything was distant in the beginning, and I had to try a little harder for belonging. I became involved with the VUSN Graduate Student Council and served as the co-chair of the Community Service and Outreach Committee. We connected with every community health nursing professor in the School of Nursing and asked: ‘What projects are you funding? What are you doing currently with these nonprofit organizations?’ And from planning community gardens to rehabbing a women’s shelter for folks that were dealing with addiction, we were able to fully fund every application that we received.”
HOW HAVE YOU EVOLVED SINCE COMING TO VANDERBILT?
“My life is so much fuller. I enjoyed many aspects of my business career, but nothing quite changes your perspective as much as helping that person who is afraid that they have a COVID diagnosis during the middle of a pandemic, or holding the hand of a mom who comes into the ER about to deliver her first baby. I believe nursing has put me much more in touch with my own humanity and vulnerability and understanding of what makes us human and gives us connection.”
“To me, Vanderbilt is exceptional and provides incredible opportunities.”