photo of Denise Gardner

Dr. Denise Gardner, 2021 Alumni of Achievement winner for UAH College of Nursing

Michael Mercier | UAH

Dr. Denise “Dee Dee” Gardner has been selected as the 2021 Alumni of Achievement award winner for the College of Nursing at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System.

A holder of multiple degrees from UAH (B.S. Nursing ’01, M.S. Nursing ’02 Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Track, Doctor of Nursing Practice ’09, Graduate Family Nurse Practitioner Certificate ‘11), Dr. Gardner recently retired after amassing over 19 years of diverse experience in her field, first as an ER nurse, then as a nurse practitioner with the Cullman Regional Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Cullman, AL. Her specialties included orthopedic surgery, and she has been affiliated with the Cullman Regional Medical Center as well.

Dr. Gardner credits a special contact with a colleague that helped point her in the direction of sports medicine and orthopedics.

“Dr. David Dueland, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon in Cullman, was frequently in the ER seeing trauma patients, so we worked together in that aspect, but he was also a friend to the nursing staff,” Dr. Gardner explains. “When he learned I was about to be an acute care nurse practitioner, he began recruiting me every time he came through the ER. Eventually we came to terms, and it worked out quite well.”

Well, indeed – the way Dr. Gardner approached her job, it was often difficult to see any dividing line separating her “work” from other qualities like “passion” and “joy.”

“A typical day started with hospital rounds seeing surgical patients and any new traumas that came into the hospital during the night,” she says. “Then it was off to the office for a full day of orthopedic clinic patients and managing all the unexpected dilemmas that come with accidents, along with teaching both patients and students, clearing patients for surgery, managing insurance issues and finding some time to listen to patient jokes, taste the biscuits and homemade jelly or warm from the oven brownies they brought. The day ended when you were finished, whenever that was.”

Dr. Gardner says her choice to become a nurse practitioner was an easy decision, particularly given the opportunity to use her experience as a nurse to generate new ways of improving patient care.

“I was an ER nurse for a long time, and I simply wanted to be able to do more for patients and for myself,” she explains. “I wanted to do procedures, prescribe, advocate for patients with more influence on treatments and outcomes, and I had some ideas of my own that nurses see from a different perspective, being directly at the bedside. With becoming a nurse practitioner, I could build on those years of experience and my nursing degree.”

Originally from Cullman, Dr. Gardner says the UAH College of Nursing had a reputation that sold her as the best place to be to find the education she sought to begin working toward her career.

“The UAH College of Nursing was known for graduating excellent nurses, something that was taught to my class in my associate degree nursing program,” she says. “Nurses were well respected as UAH graduates, and the UAH Nurse Practitioner programs were becoming more and more well known. I lived in Cullman and had a highly regarded university at my fingertips, so I had to take full advantage of the prestige and the proximity to home.”

Dr. Gardner admits that her choice of career proved to be a challenging path at times, but in the long run the struggles and challenges often brought unanticipated benefits.

“For all of my degrees from UAH I worked full time, and that in itself made school more demanding, but so much fun,” she notes. “I feel as though my family and close friends went through my programs, as well. My mother would tease me that she was going to take nursing boards when I did! You quickly teach yourself how to multi-multi-multi task when you work and go to school, and you are just certain you are not going to make it on some days, but that’s when you realize the support of the College of Nursing. The CON understands life goes on, life changes, and I think they are as determined as the student to see success.”

The alumna recalls a number of important mentors as she describes how her stint in college helped her strive to go further, expanding her ability to achieve goals that might once have seemed beyond reach.

“At UAH, not only are you learning nursing, but you are participating in research, and somehow finessed by the faculty into exploring your own ideas about how you want to change healthcare. Dr. Haley Hoy and Dr. Joan Williamson were the driving forces in leading me to see things in myself that I couldn’t see. Dr. Hoy’s optimism, fortitude and ‘Oh yes we can’ encouragement is still embedded in my thoughts today when I take on a new project. I hope I am that to the students I have mentored.”

When asked what it has been like being part of such an essential profession in the middle of a pandemic, Dr. Gardner notes that, virus or no virus, people will always need help, which enabled her to maintain her equilibrium and focus on the task at hand.

“With the uncertainty of all facets of COVID, combined with the daily rigors of the medical field, patient issues, ‘Dr. Google,’ emergencies, and then you put a pandemic in the mix, it has been one of the most frustrating and challenging times as a healthcare provider,” she says. “But whether there is a pandemic or not, people still break bones or tear their rotator cuff, and orthopedic injuries require timely intervention to minimize long-term pain and maximize the function of whatever was injured. You have to juggle the patient’s injury and personal situation, some of whom have COVID-positive family at home, with the current hospital limitations, lack of supplies, lack of staff, and somehow stay hopeful that we can find innovative ways to manage all of it. So far, we have been able to do that.”

As to where she sees herself in the future, a little timely relaxation would be just the thing the doctor ordered after such a lively career. But she keeps her eye on her primary goal, regardless.

“In the future I see myself sitting in Yellowstone National Park drinking coffee and watching the buffalo roam or turkey hunting,” she says with a smile. “I’m not certain of what the future holds. The only thing I know for certain is that I will always mentor and hopefully inspire or in some way give back to the next generation of nurses and nurse practitioners.”