Dr. Marilyn Riley selected as 2022 Alumni of Achievement honoree for College of Nursing

Marilyn Riley
Dr. Marilyn Riley, 2022 Alumni of Achievement honoree for the College of Nursing.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Alumna Marilyn Riley (DNP, Nursing, 2020) has been selected as the 2022 Alumni of Achievement award winner for the College of Nursing (CON) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System.

The UAH alumna is the Chief Nursing Officer in IU Health Frankfort Hospital in Frankfort, IN., and she recently completed her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) doctorate at UAH. The DNP is a terminal nursing degree designed to produce leaders in nursing who demonstrate the highest level of nursing expertise, whether in a clinical setting or leadership role, with the goal of influencing healthcare outcomes through organizational leadership, health policy implementation and direct patient care.

Dr. Riley already held a Ph.D. in a non-nursing field but chose to pursue the DNP to support her career goals in her position as an executive nurse leader to become an influencer of nursing practice. The full-time program at UAH is designed for working nurses, and the honoree completed her degree in two and a half years as a remote online student.

“When I was looking for a Doctorate in Nursing Practice program, I did a lot of research into a lot of different programs to see how the program was delivered, and the program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville was really the one that best fit my needs, and that’s why I chose it,” Dr. Riley explains. “To get into the Doctor of Nursing program, you have to be a nurse practitioner, which I’ve been for 25 years. The program really built on that expertise.”

The UAH DNP program is specifically designed for nurse practitioners like Dr. Riley who can focus their expertise in the practice environment and on translating evidence-based care into practice. The alumna chose workplace violence as a special area of emphasis, as noted in her DNP project, titled, Reducing Violence in the Emergency Department, Improving Perception of Safety: An Aggression Prevention Team Approach.

“Acts of aggression towards nurses has reached never-before-seen levels in Emergency Departments (ED) across the United States, and it increases by 15% or more every year,” Dr. Riley points out in her report. “Nurses and ED staff are subjected to violent patients, daily. Nurses often do not feel they have the skills to intervene safely when patients become aggressive, and these behaviors can escalate to harmful levels. Nurses must have a safe environment to practice; therefore, it is imperative violence stops. This DNP project implements an Aggression Prevention Team (APT) to respond in the ED when patients or visitors become aggressive and to improve the nurses’ perception of safety.”

The project was designed as a quality improvement plan to help implement an evidenced-based program to intervene when patient behaviors escalate. It is especially timely, given the fact that such incidents have been on the rise since the advent of the pandemic.

Nursing has been a central focus for Dr. Riley from very early on. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a nurse, so that was always really kind of a calling,” she notes. “I was inspired as a young child by my great aunt, Marilyn, whom I am named after. She was a true role model in her nurturing presence, with so much care, compassion and kindness. She worked in an Emergency Department as a secretary. My calling was to be a nurse and to emulate my great aunt’s kindness and compassion for others.”

With that path clearly in mind as a longtime goal, the most obvious step was to head straight into nursing school right out of high school.

“When I started in nursing – it’s been 35 years ago – students did clinicals in various areas, and that gives students an opportunity to see what they like to do. I really enjoyed the more intense patient care, so I was drawn to critical care, like patients who had open heart surgery. I really enjoyed the skill level it takes to work in that area. What I also liked was that it was one nurse to one patient, so I was able to devote my entire 12-hour shift to that one patient and care for all of their needs, and would really be able to provide that constant care. You get to know the patients and their families in that intense association.”

The alumna has always lived in Indiana, and those roots combined with her experience in critical care combined to make it only natural to find herself in a leadership position in a hospital in her home state.

“When you have excellent clinical skills, patient care, compassion, they say you’re a great bedside nurse, you’d make a great leader!” she says. “I had been a bedside nurse for about two years, and kind of worked my way up through the ranks that way. That’s the beauty of nursing – there are so many different opportunities. There is always another area or department to work in.”

These days, Dr. Riley draws on those years of experience and training to meet the demands of her current role as Chief Nursing Officer.

“Being in a nursing leadership role, what I really focus on is supporting the staff, support positions and providers, where the staff can bring their best selves to work so they can take better care of the patients” she says. “That approach translates into the best patient care, and the staff feels safe in coming to work, finding a way to mediate that so that no one is hurt and being able to provide that environment and support. This also translates into the patients having a great experience, so whatever those patients need, we tailor their care so that it is individualized and to identify what matters most for them and to be able to deliver on it.”

When she has time off, the alumna loves to spend it with her family. “I am married to the love of my life, Richard,” Dr. Riley says. “We have two beautiful daughters, both grown. Stephanie is my oldest. She is a mom of two daughters and one son and is a paralegal. My youngest daughter, Emily, is an Assistant Principal and has three dogs. My husband and I are very happy empty nesters but enjoy spending time with the kids. I love baking – all types of sweets. Cakes, pies, cookies, etc. Baking is a great stress reliever! I also enjoy gardening. I find it’s therapeutic to pull weeds and dig in the dirt.”

When asked what she is passionate about, Dr. Riley is quick to respond with an answer that emanates from her core avocation.

“Providing patients with excellent care, every interaction! It is important to connect on a human level to ease their fear and anxiety,” she says. “We meet people, many times on the worst day of their life, and as a nurse I am passionate about providing care to lessen the stressful situation they are in.”

That importance and value she places on human interactions is echoed by the memories of her favorite experiences while attending UAH.

“It’s about the connections I made with students and faculty,” the honoree says. “Being an online student, it takes a bit more effort to make those connections. I am grateful for the support from faculty, staff and my peers and colleagues. Graduation and commencement were cancelled because of COVID, so I was excited to see the campus for the award ceremony. Dr. [Karen] Frith was my DNP Project Chair, a great mentor, and I have really enjoyed working with her and all the faculty. It’s all been really great.”

As to where she sees herself in the future, continuing to build on her lifelong passion is a journey that never stops providing new opportunities.

“I think always having goals to do better every day is itself a goal,” she says. “With my doctorate in nursing, it certainly has opened additional doors, so I think a larger role as a nurse leader would be a role I would aspire to. A larger hospital, healthcare system, that would be a goal, and the reason for that is really to make a broader impact. Having a role in one facility is very different from having a broad role where I could impact multiple facilities or departments. A broader goal would enable me to certainly bring in my talents and be able to use those in a different way.”

Dr. Riley is thankful for the modern technologies that are enabling universities like UAH to assist in making a broader impact as well.

“I really think because of the technology we have now, and being able to offer these programs remotely, UAH is able to help students in every state and perhaps even abroad,” she notes. “By offering this advanced education and being able to impact other states, like those students who are outside of Alabama, it gives us more highly educated individuals, which is always positive for the communities where they live. By being able to give back and invest in their own community and enabling those individuals to have a higher wage through online and remote programs, UAH is really able to reach out to communities much further away than just Alabama.”

Asked to share one piece of advice with a current UAH Nursing student, the alumna’s thoughts offer straightforward and timeless wisdom.

“Don’t give up! Keep going. No matter how hard things seem, you can do it! Your future self will thank you for not giving up.”