Steady Leadership from the Top


A chat with two area CNO's

Editor's Note: In honor of National Nurses Week, West Tennessee Medical News spoke with two area Chief Nursing Officers. With more than 50 years of combined experience in nursing between the two, our spotlighted CNO's bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to their current roles. Each was posed the same five questions. The views however, are born of two different environments. One comes from the CNO of one of the largest clinics of its kind in the nation, the other is CNO of a rural healthcare facility in northwest Tennessee.

Cathy Parrett

With a Doctor of Nursing Science from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Cathy Parrett has spent her entire career in West Tennessee. From Ridgewood Health Care in Milan to Jackson Madison County Hospital to The Jackson Clinic and Union University, Parrett has been with the Jackson Clinic as the Chief Nursing Officer for the past 14 years. The Humboldt native says it was her father that impacted her decision to become a nurse. While the father of five girls was hospitalized with a cardiac condition, a nurse made such an impact on him that he thought one of his girls should be a nurse. Parrett's father died at the age of 39 of myocardial infarction and a few years later she entered nursing school.

For the past two years, Cynthia Whitaker MSN, RN, NE-BC, has been the Chief Nursing/Clinical Officer at Henry County Medical Center in Paris, Tennessee. The Hastings, Nebraska native started her career in respiratory therapy but decided to become a nurse because she had so many good friends who were in the field. Her education includes degrees from Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska and her masters from St. Josephs College of Maine. Her more than 30 years of nursing experience includes time in the ICU as well as the ER and across the country in nursing leadership for a travel management firm.

WTMN: What do you see the biggest issue facing nurses in rural settings and how do you address that?

Parrett said she sees qualified staff as one of the biggest issues. "Metropolitan areas have a larger pool of applicants," she said. "I try to encourage staff to continue their education and look at careers in nursing."

While managing a workforce that includes many generations can be challenging, Parrett says it is these differences that bring strength to the nursing staff and you have to find ways to use these various viewpoints to enhance patient care.

"Chronic diseases affect the health of our community populations and those chronic conditions require more healthcare dollars," said Parrett. "Nursing has an opportunity to educate our patients and provide opportunities to obtain wellness care. We are trained to perform this role."

Cynthia Whitaker

Whitaker sees the issues facing rural nursing as directly related to the issue of supply/demand and dollars. "As people in West Tennessee are acutely aware, rural health care is struggling to continue to survive in an era of health care spending cuts and the emergence of large multi-site hospital systems. Larger hospitals in metropolitan areas are often able to offer higher salaries and lower patient to nurse ratios that create a work place especially attractive to new nurses. The environment of a larger city with all it has to offer is also very alluring. These can be hard for small rural hospitals to compete with, especially with younger nurses and in the context of a growing nursing shortage the country is now experiencing," she said. "Nurses do the business of the hospital, taking care of patients! They are essential to day to day operations and are becoming an increasingly scarce and expensive commodity, and its challenging for rural hospitals to compete."

WTMN: How do you keep morale up and retain good nursing staff?

"Interestingly, we had this conversation this week. I think giving employees meaningful work retains good nursing staff. Also, I think when nursing staff see that we make an impact on our patients we find meaning in our work," said Parrett. "When nurses are able to align with a high-quality organization that strives to serve patients it gives them a sense of purpose and improves morale. The philosophy of the nurse and the organization must match."

Parrett thinks appreciating the efforts of staff helps with morale and to retain staff. "Our day is not always perfect, but a simple thank you goes a long way" she said. "We celebrate nurses' week, birthdays, and share positive comments with our nursing staff either through a written note, gift cards, or verbal appreciation."

"I believe it's essential for nursing leaders to define the expectations they have of their staff and clarify where there are areas of concern. I've never believed it is our place to punish staff to perform, it's our role to educate and communicate expectations and allow staff to succeed," said Whitaker. "If you take time to discover the strengths of the staff, you can utilize these to build your team while educating to their areas of opportunity."

"Nurses want to do a good job and create an exceptional experience for their patients and families," she said. "They just need to know what is expected, be supported in creating that experience and be provided the resources to succeed in doing so. If you allow nurses to be successful, while honoring their own work/life balance and reimbursing them fairly, they are amazing people who love their jobs!"

WTMN: What is your leadership vision for clinic?

"My leadership vision for the clinic is to be the best nursing staff in our area," said Parrett. "My daily vision is to serve our patients and treat them as we want to be treated."

Whitaker's vision for nursing and clinical areas is to build a strong team that works collaboratively to promote excellence in patient and family care. "I believe that easily extends to those areas not in direct patient care," she said. "As a rural hospital, it's imperative that we utilize our scarcest and most valuable resource, our staff, to the fullest extent of their scope of practice, and in a manner that promotes consistently excellent care across all aspects of the healthcare experience."

WTMN: What personal experiences prepared you professionally?

"I think my dad's disease experience began to prepare me for my practice. I realized the influence nurses have with patients. This experience coupled with my faith called me to help others," said Parrett. "Another experience that prepared me was working in oncology early in my career. The relationships that developed with the patient and their family sealed for me the belief that we are called to be servants and help others. That experience had a tremendous impact on the direction my practice took as well as on the vision and focus today, which is to serve our patients!"

"As I mentioned, I started in Respiratory Therapy and learned to love health care," said Whitaker. "When I came back into health care, I was fortunate enough to get my degree in Nursing. My father always told me, that if you don't love what you do then find what you do love. I totally believe he was right. I love health care and I especially love nursing. I believe nursing creates an experience that impacts our patients and family lives forever. I was just fortunate enough to have found my passion and been able to follow it throughout my career."

WTMN: How do you like to be recognized for your work?

"I want to be recognized as someone who is patient focused and wants to provide the best quality care to our patients. I think it is pretty awesome to be known as someone who impacted patient care in West Tennessee," said Parrett. "In my practice, I have provided care, trained individuals to provide good quality care and influenced health care for our populations. How awesome is that?"

"That is so much harder a question that it really should be," said Whitaker. "I like to be recognized for having created a great team and having that team recognized. It feels good when your boss recognizes you, but it feels even better when the people you lead recognize you and feel you have contributed to their success. That's really the ultimate for me."

Cathy Parrett


  • University of Tennessee - Martin, Associate Art (AA) in Nursing
  • University of Tennessee - Martin, Bachelor of Science (BS), Liberal Arts
  • University of Tennessee - Knoxville, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc.)

Nursing experience

  • Ridgewood Health Care, Milan, Tenn.
  • Jackson Madison County Hospital, Jackson, Tenn.
  • The Jackson Clinic, Jackson, Tenn.
  • Union University, Jackson, Tenn.

Cynthia Whitaker


  • Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska (Undergrad)
  • Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska, BSN
  • Josephs College of Maine, MSN

Nursing experience

  • 15+ years in ICU/ED in Hastings Nebraska
  • 15+ years in Nursing Leadership in several locations across the country

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