My Very Own ‘Lady with the Lamp’

July 19th, 2020 By: Betty Long

At Guardian Nurses, we often refer to Florence Nightingale, the ‘Lady with the Lamp.’  Our company’s tagline is “Lighting Your Way Through the Healthcare Maze” in homage to Nurse Nightingale and all of her pioneering work in nursing and in public health.

And it is this same spirit of lighting the way that I hold very dear my friend and mentor, Karen Kirby, RN, MSN, NEA-BC, FACHE, FAAN.

There have been two nurses whom I credit for my career in nursing.  One, Marsha Davidson, inspired me to become a nurse.  The other, Karen Kirby, inspired me to leap with both feet into starting Guardian Nurses when she “fired me” from my position at Kirby Bates Associates in 2004.

Ironically, their similarities are striking.  They are both 70 years old (1950 must have been a good year for nurses!), they are both struggling with chronic diagnoses, they have had wonderful careers as nurses, Karen as a nurse executive, Marsha on the front lines.  And despite my repeated offers, neither one of them will allow me to help them in their healthcare journeys despite, as I jokingly remind them, “I DO do this for a living, you know!”

I met Karen in 1991 when I interview with her for a nursing management position at a new hospital being built in Scotland.  A mutual friend introduced us and the opportunity to work abroad fascinated me as did Karen and her beloved husband, Jim. They were the Dynamic Duo putting the whole project together.  Up until that point, I had not met any nurse who raised the bar like Karen did.  She expected excellence and I loved that.  I bet there are plenty of us who remember the opportunities that we didn’t take and for me, the Scotland position was one. Though I didn’t accept the position, I continued to follow Karen’s career. When she moved to Philadelphia in 2003 and purchased the nurse executive search firm that would become Kirby Bates Associates, I was also starting Guardian Nurses.  Our paths crossed again and I was happy to join her early on to help her. 

But, really, it was Karen who helped me.  Working for her a few days a week, and cobbling together the first months of Guardian Nurses, it was a slow start for my newly-created business.  Very few people had heard of patient advocacy so customers were not in abundance.  When I wasn’t working for Karen, I was working on Guardian Nurses—meeting with prospects, working with patients, having lunch with this person and that person.  And then, one day, Karen called me in to her office and told me that it was time to go.  That it was time to lose my safety net, and jump in with both feet.  To focus on MY business full time.    

Funny, now writing this, I never even considered that Karen was firing me because I wasn’t doing a good job but I digress…

Though losing any job is never fun, I did understand and appreciate that Karen was kicking me to the curb.  It was time.  And Karen knew it, even though I was afraid. 

Soon after, I won a contract with the Philadelphia Police union as their members’ patient advocate.  When a police officer or family member needed guidance through the healthcare system, I got the call.  That initial contract was $25,000 which grew into another $25,000 and then even more in that same year. I was on my way!  I am proud to say that Guardian Nurses is STILL contracted with the Philadelphia Police union now 16 years later! And there are now 40 nurses who are proud to work as Guardian Nurses.

Throughout these last 17 years, as our friendship deepened, I have reached out to Karen for support around a variety of business-related questions.  Though our businesses were very different, we were nurses and we were nurse entrepreneurs.  Perhaps one of the most important lessons she taught me was that I needed to “prove” the value—the ROI— of Guardian Nurses’ services.  That each time I presented to a client or prospect, I needed to be prepared.  I needed to have done my homework.  Believe me when I tell you that to this day, I hear Karen in my head as I prepare for any meeting—even with my own team.

And any time Guardian Nurses or I have been recognized or honored, I’ve made sure to invite Karen to the event.  Though she wasn’t always able to attend those events because of her travel schedule, I knew she was there in spirit.  I still have the voice mail she left me in 2011 when I was a guest on the Dr. Oz Show.  And in my office sits the framed photo of us at Carnegie Hall in 2008 when I was recognized at the Glamour Magazine Women of the Year Gala.  

Though I tease her about firing me, I have Nurse Kirby to thank for believing in me.  To me, her generosity of intellect, of spirit, and of counsel know no bounds.  Though I never met Florence Nightingale, I am grateful to have my own ‘Lady with the Lamp’ lighting my way.

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