Baptist Executive Vaughn Receives U of M’s Highest Alumni Award

By ERINN FIGG

Anita Vaughn’s notable 43-year career with Baptist Memorial Hospital started on a whim.

Anita Vaughn retired in March after 19 years as administrator and CEO of Baptist Women’s Hospital. Now she’s shifting her focus to the Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation, where she’s serving as a consultant.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I went to University of Memphis for a year thinking I was going to be a commercial artist,” Vaughn said. “Then a friend just happened to say, ‘You know what? I’m going down to Baptist School of Nursing,’ and I said, ‘Well, OK. Me too!’

“I think it was the hand of God saying, ‘Girl, this is where I want you,’” she said. “It was one of the best decisions ever. It fit.”

That spur-of-the-moment detour took her on a journey that started in 1973 in Baptist’s Intensive Care Unit, where Vaughn worked the graveyard shift as a bedside nurse and – following a series of promotions – ended with her retirement in March after a 19-year stretch as the administrator and CEO of Baptist Women’s Hospital.

Throughout her career, Vaughn never lost her passion for education and ultimately earned two degrees from what was then Memphis State University – a Bachelor of Arts with a concentration in health sociology in 1977 and a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in health service administration in 1982.

On Saturday, May 21, the University of Memphis Alumni Association will present Vaughn with a 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award, its highest annual honor for graduates.

“That news caught me off guard, and I’m honored and humbled,” she said. “Besides my family, my great loves here are the hospital, University of Memphis and Baptist College of Health Sciences.

“I want them to be successful and I still feel very young, so I think I can help in a different way now,” she said. “It’s time to give back.”

Kim Barnett, president of U of M’s National Alumni Association board of directors, says Vaughn’s commitment to the community is one of the key reasons why she’s receiving one of the association’s four Distinguished Alumni awards this year.

“Anita Vaughn is an outstanding University of Memphis graduate, corporate leader and dedicated community advocate for women’s health care,” Barnett said. “She has given back to her alma mater and the Memphis community through her leadership, her many diverse talents, her time and financial support.

“In recognizing her as a Distinguished Alumni, we could not have selected a more deserving person,” she said. “She is True Blue.”

Vaughn’s newly retired status doesn’t mean she plans to kick up her feet and rest on her accolades in a sunny beach house somewhere. She’s now serving as a consultant to Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation, concentrating on fundraising for the Spence and Becky Wilson Baptist Children’s Hospital and continuing developments at the adjacent Baptist Women’s Hospital, both of which she was instrumental in launching.

She particularly has her sights set on the completion of the children’s hospital, a longtime dream that finally came to fruition in 2015 with the help of a generous “transformational gift” from the Wilsons.

“We got the building built for pediatrics and we got the first floor open, but we’ve got three other floors to open,” Vaughn said. “I just felt like I had the connections, relationships and networks that could help our foundation with fundraising for all the other services we’re going to add.”

There are plans for a $4 million Pediatric Intensive Care Unit on the second floor, pediatric neonatal services and staff recruitment, among other needs.

The completed first floor already has set the bar high. Absent are the usual hospital trappings of stark waiting rooms and the overpowering smell of disinfectant. Instead, supportive columns are disguised as decorative tree trunks, and glowing neon-lit treetops hang from the ceiling in the diagnostic outpatient waiting room.

In the waiting area for the pediatric emergency room, a massive aquarium and its residents captivate young patients, while a floor-to-ceiling mosaic tree – a donation from the First Tennessee Foundation – includes secret holes where kids can place wishes written on small pieces of paper. “I wish I will get better for forever. Love, Melena,” reads one.

Meanwhile, Vaughn remains invested in the evolution of the Baptist Women’s Hospital, a project she championed for more than a decade before it finally opened in 2001.

The full-service medical facility is the first freestanding women’s hospital in the Memphis area and home to the nation’s first Universal Parenting Place, where parents can receive information and counseling for family-related issues.

“The original goal was that when women needed help – whether with health, medical or education resources – the first place they’d think of is Baptist Women’s,” she said. “And I think we’ve been able to accomplish that goal.”

Vaughn’s colleagues say opening both hospitals was no ordinary feat, so it took an extraordinary woman like Vaughn to help lead those efforts.

“I think her name needs to be on the top of the building somewhere,” said Dr. Larry Johnson, former medical director and chief medical officer of Baptist Women’s Hospital, now retired. “Anita is one of the most effective leaders I’ve worked with. She made work joyful and fun, and she just has that knack for inspiring people to do their best.”

Vaughn’s civic duties also bring pride to the Baptist organization, he said, referring to her extensive involvement with local organizations such as the American Heart Association, Komen Memphis-MidSouth and Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.

“That’s another thing I admire about her so much,” he said. “She’s so active in anything to do with women, women’s health and women’s wellbeing. She’s just a remarkable person.”