Darcey Ansley has a pretty good idea when it’s going to be a long day in her Heart Transplant Intensive Care Unit (HTICU). The nurse manager almost always will receive a phone call from Paige Lee, the unit charge nurse.

Heart Transplant Intensive Care nurses Stephanie Sharp, left, and Tracy Gordon, right, stand with Nurse Manager Darcey Ansley under a banner congratulating their unit for being awarded the Beacon Award for Critical Care Excellence.

“I call her and tell her to put her dress on and come on in,” Lee says with a laugh. “She likes to wear a nursing dress instead of scrubs when she works the unit.”

And Ansley always comes right in with a smile on her face and ready to help her fellow nurses.

“This is a group of people who take pride in their unit,” she says. “They really set a high standard of care for the patients.”

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses agrees. The group recently awarded the HTICU the Beacon Award for Critical Care Excellence, which recognizes the nation’s top critical-care units for high-quality standards, exceptional care of patients and their families and healthy work environments.

“We have a great team of nurses who really take people under their wings. They make sure everyone gets the support they need,” Ansley says. “Not everything is always perfect, of course, but if it’s not they always try to make it better. They are very committed to their patients and each other.”

The HTICU is the first unit in Alabama to receive the Beacon award, and their selection is the culmination of an arduous application process with multiple criteria that had to be thoroughly verified. It was entirely staff-driven, collected, written and submitted. The application is one-inch thick and took four months to complete. It was a laborious task handled largely by nurses Janet Herring and Angie Ballenger.

Beacon award criteria include innovation/excellence in recruitment and retention, education, training and mentoring, evidence-based practice and research, patient outcomes, creating and promoting healing environments and leadership and organizational ethics.

Caring for patients
The HTICU differs from many critical-care units. Patients often are on the unit for months – sometimes for more than a year – before receiving their heart or lung transplant. After surgery, patients are not transferred to another floor for recovery. Instead, they spend their recovery period with the same nurses who admitted them, and patients are discharged straight from the HTICU.

Once, nurses arranged for a police officer to come and give a patient their driver’s test because they were spending their 16th birthday on the unit. The staff also follows up with patients and families after they leave, sometimes attending funerals, birthday parties and wedding anniversaries.

This past Christmas, the unit started both a Remembrance Tree and Bereavement Tree, inviting patients and their families to send ornaments for the trees. The response was overwhelming.

“It was just amazing and very emotional,” Ansley says. “People sent in ornaments along with a story of why they chose the ornament and what the ornament meant to them. It was over the top in how it made you feel to be a part of this community.”

Patients also come back to the unit after they are discharged to seek advice for any kind of health problem they may experience – or just to visit.

“There are things that go into excellence other than knowing medicine and the latest technologies, and no one exhibits that better than the HTICU group,” Ansley says. “They are special people, and because of that this unit becomes a home away from home for some of our patients.”