Cardiac Nurse Celebrates 45 Years of Federal Service
Bryant Maintains Therapeutic Edge with Passion For Patients
By Bernard S. Little and Joe Nieves, WRNMMC Command Communications
Francine Joyce Bryant tells it to you straight, but with a touch of humor and sincere compassion. The smile on her face remains constant, even when the topic of discussion turns serious. And most importantly, she knows her stuff, especially when it comes to her passion for more than a half century — cardiac care and nursing.
Bryant has been a cardiac nurse for more than 52 years. Thirty-five of those years she has worked at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and more recently the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the leadership team at the hospital honored her this spring for 45 years of federal service. She had initially begun her career at the National Institutes of Health in 1965, but left to join the Walter Reed team from 1968 to 1971. She went back to NIH in 1971 and worked there until 1979 when she came back to WRAMC. She worked here until 2001 when she left to work at Shady Grove Medical Center, but returned to Walter Reed in 2007.
Currently, Bryant serves as head nurse of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center and coordinator for the Heart Failure Clinic in Cardiology at Walter Reed Bethesda.
“It’s been an evolution,” said Bryant of her lengthy and rewarding career. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Bryant explained how her family moved often, so she’s “from everywhere in general and no place in particular.” But she calls the Bethesda/Rockville area home, having arrived here Aug. 1, 1965 to begin her nursing career at NIH.
“When I was a girl, the thing about what girls did after they graduated from high school was kind of limited,” Bryant said. She explained most women at the time became secretaries, teachers or nurses. “I thought I try nursing,” she continued.
“I hired myself out when I was a teenager as a nurse’s aide at the local hospital in Ohio, where we were living at the time,” Bryant said. “When you start out at the bottom rung and you find something redeeming in that, I went, ‘This is it,’” she recalled in describing how she came to the decision that nursing was her passion and what she wanted to do with her life.
“I applied to three nursing schools. I wanted to go to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania because it was a big medical center with a good reputation. I got accepted to the two other hospitals I had applied to, but I hadn’t heard from Penn. I called them up and said, ‘If I don’t qualify, I would just like to know.’ I was brazen,” she recalled with a laugh, but her fortitude paid off.
“I got my appointment to come in for an interview the next week, and I was accepted,” Bryant said. She explained the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania “was a grand place to go to school. They really believed in educating you and not just training you, which is a big difference.”
Bryant said one of the two “seminal moments in her life” occurred during her senior year in nursing school at Penn. “We were tasked to create a presentation to our classmates, choosing an organ and a disease that affects that organ.” She and her partner for the project “got stuck with the liver. It’s a fascinating organ and I have the utmost respect for what it does, but [the project] was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
She added two of her other classmates did their project on the heart and discussed the congenital defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, named after French physician Dr. Etienne-Louis Arthur Fallot. The condition affects infants, who are commonly referred to as “the blue babies” because of the bluish color to their skin caused by the heart defect. “They died very quickly after birth because of [poor] blood circulation.”
“I sat [in class] in utter rapture,” Bryant remembered as she listened to her classmates describe the condition. She said she thought to herself then, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And that’s what she has done for more than five decades — been a cardiac nurse of one form or another.
Bryant said the other seminal moment in her life happened during the 1970s while she was working at NIH. She had applied for a job as a school nurse at “a very exclusive girl school,” which she thought would be a change from what she had been doing. She was very close to being accepted for the position. “Literally at the 11th-and-three-quarters hour, the school called me up and said they had an experienced school nurse who had also applied for the job, and that while they appreciated my application, they decided to go with her.
“Like clockwork, the head of the monitoring department at NIH came to me and said cardiology was looking for a nurse to run the stress lab,” Bryant continued. She applied for the position and got it.
“That was a huge breakthrough for two reasons,” she explained. “Nurses had not done stress test in those days,” she said, so she was breaking ground. In addition, she got to work with the echocardiograph machine, which was new to the field at that time.
“It was very much in preliminary phase, so I turned out to be NIH’s first echo tech. We built up [stress testing] to be a world-class division of cardiology,” she said, adding the experience kept her on the cutting-edge of all that was going on in the field of cardiology at the time.
Throughout the course of her career, Bryant said she’s been asked on numerous occasions to be a part of something new, groundbreaking and experimental, and her response has always been, “Sure.” She explained this has kept her up-to-date on the advances in the field.
“Each of my changes in jobs built on what went before, so it has always been a progression,” Bryant continued. “Need and want kind of merged, so I’ve had a phenomenal career. It’s been so interesting and it’s been fun,” she added.
She said at NIH she got to work with Dr. Kenny Kent, one of few cardiologists in the United States at the time doing angioplasty, prior to the evolution of stents.
“At that time, by-pass was pretty new, so to think you could get the kind of results we did with angioplasty without patients having the zipper down their chests was like, ‘Man, that is so cool,’” she laughed.
Bryant said she’s been lucky during her career to be able to go back and forth between NIH and Walter Reed Bethesda to learn and share information, knowledge and breakthroughs.
“I’m thankful I’m able enough, and my brain functions well enough to keep up with the changes,” she laughed. “To be in cardiac care in my time, when I came from cardiac surgery that was routinely 10 to 12 hours long with lots of problems and side effects to now, when people go home within days, it’s like a chance to see a miracle evolve.”
She readily admits that within cardiac care there are a lot of questions still need to be answered, but to see its progression over the years has been amazing.
“Working here has been an honor,” Bryant added about Walter Reed Bethesda. She said “there’s an excitement about what you’re doing” at the Flagship of Military Medicine.
She added that one of the rewards of her career was her recent induction as an associate into the American College of Cardiology, which bestows credentials upon cardiovascular specialists who meet its qualifications. Membership is based on training, specialty board certification, scientific and professional accomplishments and duration of active participation in a cardiovascular related field.
Another of the rewards of her career Bryant said is to be able to talk to people, especially her patients, and hear their stories. “To be part of their experiences, because they have generally been through a lot, as well as for them to count me as a colleague and a friend is rewarding. There’s a closeness in the [military community], and I’ve known some of these people for 30 years. You’re part of a network of magnificent people. It’s like family. We do get involved with our patients and still maintain the therapeutic edge. It’s proven to be worthwhile for 52 years,” she concluded.