Denise Burnett entered Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., to major in journalism and minor in political science with dreams of joining the Fourth Estate.
It was between semesters, while on a six-week mission trip to Nairobi, Kenya, that her plan and way of life would change thanks to two chaperones, both of whom were nurses.
“In talking with them and getting to know them, I was fascinated,” said Burnett, who joined the nurses on a tour of a hospital where she was able to look in on a surgery. “I was hooked. … I came back and I said, ‘OK, I know what I’m supposed to do.’”
She switched to St. John’s School of Nursing in Springfield and has never looked back.
Originally from California, Burnett moved to Memphis during her high school years with her pastor father, later relocating to the Midwest before college. After nursing school, her husband at the time moved around with his career and Burnett was a nurse in Springfield and Kansas, eventually being transferred to Memphis in 1982.
As a nurse in Memphis, she has worked in almost every hospital. It was in 1988, while working in a temporary capacity in surgery at Saint Francis Hospital, that she met fellow nurse Carol Paterson. The plan for a staffing agency for nurses began to form between the two.
“She said, ‘We can do this, we could have an agency just for surgery because nobody understands it and we could do it better,’” Burnett said.
They started O.R. Nurses Inc. that year, with local contracts from smaller surgery centers as well as Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Baptist Memorial Hospital. The partners required five years experience from their nurses and went into the hospitals to help train.
“We felt like we were an elite group out there, which we were,” Burnett said.
Paterson died of ovarian cancer within the first two years and, with her friend’s memory and vision, Burnett says she “put it into overdrive and kept moving forward.”
“When you have a patient in surgery, you’re really the patient advocate. It’s a team effort, but at the end of that surgery, when they close the surgical site and you take the patient to the recovery room, you know that whatever it was that had to be done you made a difference, you’ve been able to assist and you’ve helped that patient to the next step of recovery.”
Before establishing their own operating rooms, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital conducted its surgeries at St. Joseph’s Hospital. When that facility closed in the late 1990s, O.R. Nurses helped St. Jude open their own operating rooms.
The company celebrates 25 years this year with more than 400 nurses staffing surgery, intensive care, emergency rooms, and labor and delivery on a day-to-day, weekly or monthly basis regionally.
O.R. Nurses personnel travel as well, working hospitals and surgery centers from Memphis to Alaska and on both coasts.
“We have relationships all over the country and nurses, they’re just so mobile in this day and time,” Burnett said, noting that the two main demographics include young nurses with no family to keep them here, and empty-nesters looking to work when and where it suits them.
For Burnett, nursing is much more than a job. It’s a calling. Since that trip to Nairobi and her first glimpse at the nursing life, Burnett has worked bedside, taught and managed the men and women who have answered that calling.
“When you have a patient in surgery, you’re really the patient advocate,” she said. “It’s a team effort, but at the end of that surgery, when they close the surgical site and you take the patient to the recovery room, you know that whatever it was that had to be done you made a difference, you’ve been able to assist and you’ve helped that patient to the next step of recovery.”
Burnett was inducted into The Society of Entrepreneurs in 2010, which, she said, was “an incredible and unexpected honor which I do not take for granted.”
She has sat on the Society’s board as well as the boards of the Church Health Center and LifeWings Partners LLC, and is on the Ambassador Board for Baptist College of Health Sciences where she taught for five years in the 1980s and has established a nursing scholarship in the name of her friend and partner Carol Paterson.
Burnett is the mother of two sons – Bryan, who works with O.R. Nurses, and Jerrod, who works in the restaurant industry – and grandmother of two granddaughters. She finds great rewards in family, work and community.
She sees nurses as extensions of their patients and her work with O.R. Nurses has been a quarter century of compassion, needs met and making a difference in patient care. The ideal she strove for as a bedside nurse can be found in the mission of her company: “One passion, one patient, one shift at a time.”