Nursing is in Kelly Baxter's blood. Growing up in Rhode Island with a mother and two aunts who were all nurses, she recalls a childhood that was heavily influenced by the relatives surrounding her. So there wasn't much to question when she decided to follow in their footsteps.
Yet Baxter's career in nursing has taken her to places far beyond what she could've imagined as a young child or as a new college graduate back in 1998. She has worked at Yale New Haven Hospital, Kent Hospital and as a travel nurse, and earned a master's degree from the University of Rhode Island (URI) in 2009.
Shortly after graduating from URI, Baxter began working in palliative care at Hope Health and found what she considers to be her true passion in nursing. "Palliative care … is a specialty that is near and dear to my heart," she said. "I absolutely love it."
In 2013, Baxter joined Care New England, where she developed an in-patient palliative program. During this time, she took on leadership opportunities she hadn't foreseen and realized more education might be helpful. As she began considering universities, Baxter heard about Salve Regina's newly formed Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. She was excited to be part of the founding group of students who would pave the way for the program to grow and expand.
"I was looking for a program that was going to be flexible … and I really looked for that hybrid," she said. "It was the perfect fit. I loved classroom learning – it's a rich environment and I wanted that – but I knew I couldn't be out of the house every night out of the week."
Baxter said that earning her DNP was a life-changing journey. The program expanded her scope from just bedside care to looking at health care systems as a whole and how to care for groups of patients, and she also was able to step into her role as a leader to a greater capacity. This is exactly the point of the program, according to Dr. Sharon Stager, assistant professor and director of the DNP program.
"The role of the doctor in nursing practice is to develop change within practice and advocate to enhance patient outcomes – whether through providing holistic care or leading within the health care system," Stager said. "Ultimately, this is synergistic with the Salve mission to bring merciful change to the world."
Baxter agreed that the program expanded her horizons. "It strengthened my love of nursing," she said. "I felt that program at Salve helped me to think bigger, which was really great."
She also got to dive deep into the research aspect of nursing. Before this, she would've never described herself as someone who would invest time in research, but she realized how important it was during her time at Salve Regina. Her scholarly project, "Exploration of Factors That Influence Advance Care Planning for Primary Care Patients," explored the individual factors that influence people's health care decisions. Through the project, she was able to work on a grant which focused on educating patients around advance care planning and end of life planning.
"These conversations can be quite emotional and difficult," Baxter said. "However, I found that people were very reflective and empowered to make choices that aligned with their beliefs and values."
As she researched for the grant, Baxter traveled to primary care practices throughout the state and met with patients to discuss the importance of advance directives. She also taught group sessions to educate patients about advance directives and having an active voice when choosing what type of care they wanted to receive at end of life.
"Kelly is an astute professional with the mission to enhance communication around the process of end of life care," Stager said. "She is a steward within nursing and the community here at Salve, and she is an adjunct professor in the graduate nursing program."
Baxter completed her DNP in 2019 and is now working at Third Eye Health, which provides telemedicine to nursing homes throughout the country. As clinical coordinator of the supportive care program and director of clinical compliance and quality metrics, she splits her time between looking at quality measures surrounding telemedicine outcomes for patients and creating a palliative care program.
"I've been working really hard on developing [the palliative program], and we're piloting that in Rhode Island now," Baxter said. "That's my specialty, so to be able to create a program around that is awesome for me."
As Baxter has stepped into her new roles at Third Eye Health, she's reflected back on the hard work, dedication and commitment it took to follow through with a doctoral program and the ways that work has prepared her for the roles she has now. To her, it has all been worth it.
"I love the learning environment," she said. "I got that at Salve, and it propelled my career in a new direction, which is exciting. The richness of education is so valuable that you can never go wrong by getting more education."