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Since his early days as a Jaycee, when he sold jam to raise money for the still-young North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, Ernest Grant, PhD, RN,FAAN, has been eager to support his community. Today he serves as the coordinator for the Burn Center’s internationally recognized Burn Prevention Program and was recently reelected as Vice President of the American Nurses Association. We sat down with Dr. Grant to learn more about what brought him to UNC, why advocacy is so important to burn care and what it means to be a leader.

Dr. Ernest Grant

We sat down with Dr. Grant to learn more about what brought him to UNC, why advocacy is so important to burn care and what it means to be a leader.

What brought you to Chapel Hill?

I came here because of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center. The Burn Center as you know is named after the Jaycees, which is a civic organization. For a civically minded young person, the Jaycees are one of the first community service organizations that you join. Then once you age out of that organization you join the Lion’s Club or the Rotary Club, but you are still doing community activities.

While I was a young Jaycee, they were doing a great deal of fundraising to support the Burn Center and one of the ways they did that was selling jars of jam, at $1 a jar, to the citizens of NC. In my local chapter, in Black Mountain/Swannanoa, I was the chair of our campaign for a couple of years in a row, and we’d always have a summer meeting here in Chapel Hill that was the kick off to the jelly sales.

At the time I was working on my baccalaureate degree and I had every intention of staying in the Asheville area, but I thought it was great here and what better way to show your loyalty to an organization than to work for the place where you are doing a lot of fundraising.

My thinking at the time was that I would finish school in Chapel Hill, then go back to western NC. But then I met my partner while I was studying here and that was another reason to stay. Originally I was only going to stay for a year. But 35 years later, I’m still here.

Why did you choose to specialize in burn nursing?

To me, it’s a very challenging discipline and you get to apply everything you learn in nursing school. You get a variety of patients – young, old, rich, poor, from different cultures. No two days are alike.

And even more than the challenge of it, you get to make a difference every day, whether if you’re at the bedside caring for someone or advocating for better public health policy. These day I’m at the bedside less, but I do a lot of advocacy and public education.

You also get to meet some of the nicest people in the Burn Center. And because they are often there long term you really get to know them. Burn patients are often on the unit long term – a month, six weeks. I had one patient stay two years. So you really get to learn a lot about the patients and their families and they are very appreciative of everything you do. For you, it’s just doing your job, but for them it’s everything. And it’s very satisfying to know that you are making a difference.

It’s not for everybody. It’s a very challenging environment, but it’s also a very rewarding one.

What is it about burn care in particular that lends itself so well to advocacy and education?

We know that about 90 percent of all burns can be prevented if people would just stop and consider the consequences of their actions. We know that there are a lot of precautions that people can take to prevent burns, but we need to create a heightened awareness of it.

We all know somebody with cancer or heart disease but it’s rare to know someone who has sustained a burn. And because the consequences of risky behavior are not as visible people don’t often stop to consider the fact that they could potentially sustain a serious burn injury.

It’s one of those things that is not that prevalent so some people don’t think about it, but to the more than 1,700 patients we see each year, a serious burn can be life-altering.

But it’s not just in the clinic where you can make a difference. There are things you can do as a private citizen too. One of the things I’m doing right now is chairing a coalition advocating against legislation that would allow NC to sell the same types of fireworks they sell in South Carolina. Now there are people that would argue that they should be able to celebrate the way they want to. But they haven’t seen someone who has lost a hand, or lost an eye, or someone whose house has burned down because of a firework going errant.

Situations like what might arise from being careless with fireworks get to the heart of why advocacy is so important to burn care: because it can happen at any time, anywhere, to anyone, seemingly without cause. There are lots of things that we do on a daily basis that could subject us to a potential burn injury. And that makes education and advocacy all the more important.

What is the advantage of being a part of professional organizations like the American Nursing Association (ANA)?

I joined as soon as I completed my bachelor’s degree in 1985. The reason I joined is that, if you are a professional, you should belong to your professional organization because it gives you a voice in how your profession is practiced. If you don’t stand up and make your voice heard, someone else will and they may have no sense of what you do or what you need to be successful.

So you need to do what you can to get a seat at the table, because someone has to be able to set the pace as to where your profession is going to go, and what issues need to be addressed.

You have to be prepared to understand what is happening at the grassroots level and how to prepare for that. How do we help those folks who are dealing with what is, at the moment, a local problem so it doesn’t snowball across the country?

Take for instance the Zika virus last summer. There were a few hospitals in Florida and the one in Texas affected, but it was still important to make sure nursing staffs across the country were educated, that they knew what they needed to do, because that mosquito is not going to just stay in Florida. Another example is the current proposed changes in health care legislation. Every member of the health care team should be informed and aware of how that legislation may affect their ability to practice. That’s just a couple of example of how organizations such as ANA are helps to advocate for the profession and the public that we care for.

You’ve held quite a lot of leadership roles. What’s your approach to being an effective leader?

As a leader you want to be able to have a listening ear open to what’s going and be prepared to deal with those issues. It’s bottom up and it’s top down; it goes both ways. One of the things we do within ANA is we set a lot of policies, such as the nurses code of ethics, which talks about how a nurse, as a professional, should act or what they should do in certain situations.

One thing in particular that we’ve done is look at nurse-patient ratio when it comes to staffing. There are some groups who mandate the ratio and tell nurse managers that it’s this or else. We take the view that every floor is different but you should work with your employer to figure out what’s the optimal situation for you.

I am very fortunate to have had a number of mentors at the local, state and national level. These are people that I admire, that I can call on and ask their opinions or throw an idea out there and ask them what they think. You have to set the example for those that are coming behind you.