Island nursing icon retires, leaving powerful legacy
Standing like a general at the helm of the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Nursing, Pamela Watson has transformed a small program with 125 graduates a year into a highly regarded academic powerhouse.
This year, 600 new and advanced practice nurses graduated from the island university with a 95 percent pass rate on the registered nurse licensure and board certification examinations, one of the highest pass rates in Texas and the nation.
“Our nurses are sought after because we develop critical thinkers and skilled clinical practitioners,” Watson said. “We require exceptional commitment from our students because the work they will do demands it.”
Watson retired in September after 16 years as dean of the nursing school and as a senior vice president at the medical branch. She is leaving Galveston to reside in a pastoral community near her son, Willis, in Gladwyne, a suburb of Philadelphia, and to spend summers at her 18th-century ancestral home on Mount Desert Island in Maine.
Absorbed in completing necessary work, Watson concedes she hasn’t given much thought to retirement; she has no bucket list.
“I love my work; it’s my passion,” she said. “I’m choosing to leave now at a high point because I know it’s time.”
Watson began her nursing studies at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1964. The caliber of the program ignited her desire for excellence, and that has never waned.
“The work was challenging and I loved it,” she said.
Later, Watson received her baccalaureate nursing degree from Boston University, followed by a master’s and doctoral degree in rehabilitation counseling and psychology.
Watson became a faculty member at Boston University and earned tenure before she was offered the chairmanship of the nursing department at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Twelve years later, she was recruited for the dean’s position at the University of Texas Medical Branch on the island.
At the time, she was newly widowed and ready for a change and a challenge. Galveston seemed a perfect fit, she said.
Nursing was gaining recognition for its integral part in the health care team when Watson arrived at the medical branch. She was prepared to make the most of this renaissance in her profession and pushed hard from the start.
“The transition had bumps — my standards are high — but over time, I believe I earned the respect and confidence of my colleagues,” she said.
Watson also expanded the school’s advisory council to increase the visibility of nursing within the community and she earned the nursing program many ardent supporters.
Watson’s contributions at the medical branch stretch beyond her leadership at the School of Nursing.
For a time, she served as the interim chief academic officer with responsibility for all educational programs. She also was placed in charge of the institution’s preparation and response for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the university regional accrediting agency. In that role, she was able to move the institution to an almost flawless evaluation when it was last visited.
“I recommended that we establish an office of institutional effectiveness, and once it was created, we could make progress,” she said. “It gave us a way to evaluate, assess and continually improve.”
Watson also worked to inform and educate state legislators about the importance of the nursing field in Texas and its financial requirements. And she served as an inspiration and a mentor to many women in leadership positions at the medical branch.
She also led a successful effort to attain coveted magnet status for the medical branch hospitals.
Magnet status is an award given by the American Nurses Credentialing Center designed to measure the strength and quality of the nursing staff.
Among all of her accomplishments and accolades, ironically, Watson is probably best known for creating the very popular Holiday Style Fashion Show & Luncheon, which raises scholarship money to support the School of Nursing Honors Program.
It’s an elegant affair with fashions provided by Tootsies in Houston and features professional models, artistic floral arrangements and show-stopping auction items. Seats are sought after at the event, which last year drew more than 550 people. This year, it’s on Nov. 14.
“It is a wonderful event, which is made possible by the volunteer efforts of people, especially those who have served as chairs like Mary Ann Salch Murphy, Jeannie Urbani, Joy Fertitta, Susan Falgout Seinsheimer, Karen Flowers, Georgia Meyer, Susanne Sullivan and the Sullivan women, and this year, Margo Markowitz and Cynthia McEldowney,” Watson said.
Building a better nursing school has always been at the top of Watson’s mind, she said.
“You’re either moving forward or you are losing ground,” she said.
Determination and diplomacy along with academic acumen have sustained her.
“I’ve had to learn about leadership and especially about giving recognition to faculty and students who do outstanding work,” she said.
An executive coach at the medical branch encouraged her to find more balance in her life, but she didn’t see the need.
“If you love your work and you have important goals to accomplish, why would you plan an outside activity every week that has no real meaning for you?,” she said. “I don’t need balance. That’s just not me.”