Alumna reflects on career, coming out of retirement

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By Frank Couch

For alumna Bonnie Pilon, PhD, NEA-BC, FAAN (PhD 1988), the faculty mentorship she received during her time as a UAB School of Nursing PhD student still resonates with her.

“I have arrived,” Pilon remembers thinking about being invited to join faculty members Dr. Delois Skipwith Guy, Dr. Arthur Ree Campbell and Dr. Charlie Dickson for lunch one afternoon. Sitting among so many legendary nurse leaders she looked up to and hearing their stories, she reminded herself to “shut up and listen.”

Pilon decided to pursue her PhD when she was a nurse administrator running a large clinical division at Baptist Medical Center Montclair.

“I would make million-dollar decisions until about noon then jump in my car, drive across town, find a place to park and be in class by one,” Pilon said. “I had to remind myself there I did not know anything.”

Pilon went on to become Senior Associate Dean at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing for 15 years and was named Professor Emerita in 2017.

In 2020, Pilon saw the world shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic. She recalled that when students left for spring break, they did not return to campus.

“Almost overnight the campus was turned into an infectious disease control operation,” Pilon said, with enhanced cleaning, shields, masks, and directional signs designed to limit contact for those who continued to work on campus. She looked for ways to use her skills and training as a nurse.

“I wanted to contribute,” Pilon said. “I felt this was the greatest public health threat in my lifetime.”

She found her place as part of the contact tracing team on campus, which concluded in May of this year. She volunteered to administer vaccines at pop-up community clinics to reach underserved populations and at mass vaccination clinics—where one of her former students happened to be her supervisor.

“You have to be good to your students because you never know who your boss will be,” Pilon laughed. “I was one of six nurses at the clinic who came out of retirement to help and we called ourselves the ‘Vintage Nurses.’”

Looking back on her career, Pilon wants to make sure future nurses have access to the same mentorship and resources she had to succeed. She has been a faithful donor for many years to UABSON scholarships.

“I was a scholarship student for all of my undergraduate years and without those donors, I would not have been able to attend college. I feel I am paying that forward when I donate. It is a privilege,” Pilon said.

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