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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Catherine Garner

A Calling, Not Just a Job

Dr. Catherine Garner never slows down. Whether mentoring ACU Online’s nursing students, traveling to every single county of Tennessee for a Senate campaign, building one of the nation’s first online nursing programs, leading a large multi-campus clinic system at the height of the crack epidemic or helping launch a new nursing school in the Caribbean—Dr. Garner is always ready for a new adventure. Read on to learn about her remarkable life, career, and how her entrepreneurial spirit and love of education lead her right to ACU Online.

Discovering Her Path

It all started with a bulletin board. Catherine Garner was studying nursing at Vanderbilt University in the mid ‘70 and looking for a summer job. A post on the bulletin board in the nursing school advertised an interesting position: Lamar Alexander was running for governor of Tennessee and his wife Lelsee needed a live-in babysitter for their two children.

Garner was studying to be a pediatrics nurse and she loved kids, so she thought “why not?” Though Alexander lost his bid for Tennessee governor that time around, Catherine and the family remained close. So, when he decided to run again in 1978, Leslee reached out to Garner, asking if she would be interested in going on the road with them to help take care of their kids. By now, Dr. Garner had graduated and been working as a nurse in the Labor and Delivery wing at Vanderbilt for two years. Despite her superiors swearing this would “ruin her career,” Catherine leapt at the chance and quit nursing to travel with Alexander’s gubernatorial campaign.

The experience deeply impacted Dr. Garner. They visited all 95 counties in Tennessee and, as she said, “when you get beyond Nashville, you start seeing real poverty up close and personal.” She was profoundly affected by seeing many people couldn’t access the kind of care provided by big urban hospitals like Vanderbilt’s. This recognition sparked a lifelong interest in public health policy. Dr. Garner became an assistant campaign coordinator for writing nursing policy papers for Alexander’s campaign. When he won the governorship in 1979, she pivoted into a position as a nursing consultancy with the Tennessee Department of Health. 

Stepping into Leadership

Far from “ruining her career,” Dr. Garner’s work with public health policy caught the attention of a clinic director at Vanderbilt. He called and offered her work in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology—helping start up one of the nation’s first in vitro fertilization clinics. For five years, Dr. Garner served as the nursing coordinator, helping women struggling with pregnancy receive treatment. During this time, she wrote Principles of Infertility Nursing, a book on in-vitro fertilization. But the work was draining and often required her to work seven days a week. Plus, during this period, Garner became a single mother with two kids and earned her Master of Science in Nursing from Vanderbilt. 

Feeling burnt out, in 1984, Dr. Garner left the gynecology clinic and hopped around as a consultant in Nashville for a couple of years, before serving as the Director of Administrative Services at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. This position led her to become the director of a network of out-patient clinics at Truman Medical Center scattered throughout the Kansas City metro.

It was a challenging time. At the start of the ‘90s, Kansas City was in the middle of the crack epidemic. But, Dr. Garner persevered. She recognized the importance of nurses offering more holistic and less hospital-focused care: “With something as systemic as the crack epidemic, you need to be able to think about care both pre- and post-hospital. How can medical care ‘follow their patients’ out the doors of the hospitals and into their communities?”

Providentially, Dr. Garner heard something exciting at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The university had just received funding to offer a Doctor of Public Health Policy and Administration that was explicitly focused at “mid-career professionals.” She’d always been interested in public policy and here was a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into the field. Plus, the program only required her to move to North Carolina for a year. And, according to her, “I can do anything for a year.”

Making a Difference

On a whim, while still in graduate school, Dr. Garner called the North Carolina Department of Health to see if they needed any help with grant writing and public health initiatives. To her surprise, they told her they were pursuing a federal grant that would enable better follow-up treatment for women who had tested positive for breast and cervical cancer.

Dr. Garner went to work and wrote up a proposal for NC’s Department of Health and won the grant. With this success, she focused her final doctoral project on studying the very clinics for which she had written these grants; particularly because she “was concerned about the ethics of telling women who couldn’t afford breast cancer treatment that they’d tested positive for breast or cervical cancer.” As part of her project, she conducted a study and found a staggering 8% of women reported that they’d rather not receive any treatment for breast or cervical cancer than have to bankrupt themselves and their families to pay. 

Dr. Garner presented this study at the Center for Disease Control’s national conference. The numbers “shocked” the assembled doctors and healthcare administrators, demonstrating to her how disconnected medical professionals had become from the people they treated. As she said, “What kind of choice is that? Get treated for cancer or bankrupt my family?”

Luckily, someone in the audience agreed. Afterward, a clinic director from the Arizona Cancer Center approached and offered a position to Dr. Garner as president of a medical business called Innovative Strategies that, among other things, worked to make follow-up care more accessible to poorer and minority women. Over the next decade, she led this organization, working with state legislatures to secure funding and established several clinics in Navajo territories to offer affordable, accessible care for countless Native American and Hispanic women. Bringing care and resources to those who often have difficulty accessing them has always been a passion for Dr. Garner, and this period of life “cemented her love for community-based care.”

Moving Online

Garner’s passion for the underserved ultimately led her to become the first dean of the University of Phoenix’s new online nursing program in 2000. The University of Phoenix had only launched into the revolutionary new world of online education 10 years before. It wasn’t always easy though. She recounts having to “fight with all 50 boards of nursing.” Many were skeptical about online nursing education’s efficacy. The technology in the early 2000s was very rudimentary, and “teaching online is a completely different craft” from traditional teaching. She remembers, “we had to figure it all out from scratch, basically.”

But, for Dr. Garner, “online education just made sense.” From her own experience with long hours and chaotic schedules, Dr. Garner understood that you “can’t expect a nurse to be in a class every Tuesday 6-10…a nurse’s life just has so many variables.” Online education fits a nurse’s life perfectly, and enabled schools to capture populations of students who simply couldn’t get degrees to advance their nursing careers or even enter the nursing field because of lack of access. In her mind, building new ways to educate students online extended her mission to bring “medical accessibility to rural and residential students who didn’t have access to campuses” in bigger, wealthier cities. Ultimately, her and the program’s goal was “to break down barriers so working adults can have access to resources to advance their career.” And now, over two decades later, she feels triumphant: “I started out as a back of the room girl, but now everyone’s doing online learning.” She had to fight to prove online nursing’s relevancy, but now Dr. Garner is excited that it’s an increasingly popular modality and a widely respected new form of education.

Looking to the Future

In 2002, she left the University of Phoenix and has spent the last 20 years of her professional life teaching, leading, and supporting nursing programs all over the country. She even helped launch the International University of Nursing in the West Indies as their first provost and dean.

She currently lives in Florida, and has settled down into her “retirement job” as the faculty and scholarly project mentor for ACU Online’s Master of Healthcare Administration and Doctor of Nursing Practice programs. Here, she teaches program planning and evaluation, quality improvement, health policy and law. Dr. Garner remains fascinated and passionate about community-based care and public health policy. She wants to teach her students both how to work in hospitals and how they can equip patients to self-manage outside the hospitals.

In these extremely tumultuous but exciting times, Garner sees herself as a “wise woman,” a phrase she picked up from working among the Navajo in Arizona. As an older woman who’s been in the healthcare field for decades, she encourages her students “in new directions,” offering them her experience and wisdom. She loves how ACU Online emphasizes vocational formation and nurtures students’ discovery of who they are in God and what they should do—because, for her, “nursing is a calling for me, not just a job.” 

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