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The Road Taken

 5 min read

Jefferson Diploma Nurse Steps Out of the Usual Career Trajectory

Katherine (Kay) Kinsey, PhD, RN, FAAN, isn’t entirely sure how she got started down the road to nursing. There were no role models in her family, although she had a few great aunts and a grandmother with eighth-grade educations, which qualified them for certain teaching jobs. 

It may have had something to do with the farm in upstate Pennsylvania that’s been in her family for generations. “Maybe I liked nursing animals,” she ventures.

At age seven, she spent two months recovering from an acute illness. Rather than going to second grade classes, she read books from the Cherry Ames series, whose title character is an intrepid nurse who solves mysteries and catches criminals. Maybe that was part of it.

“One day, I just sort of declared nursing as what I wanted to do,” she summarizes. And that was that.

By the time she was old enough to start figuring out how to do it, she knew it would have to be a diploma program because her family had three other children to send off to school. “For some reason I liked being in Center City, and I liked the caliber of the program at Jefferson,” she recalls. “So, I decided to come to Jefferson.”

After earning a nursing diploma, Kinsey worked the night shift in a respiratory unit at Jefferson’s hospital caring for some 30 miners from nearby coal towns who suffered from black lung disease.

“That meant you hustled,” she says, “but you also learned a lot. It was an awesome responsibility, but after two years, I knew it wasn’t the end of my education: It was the beginning.”

In those days, the post-marriage norm meant moving from place to place so her husband could complete his medical education, fellowships, and service obligations. On the move with him, Kinsey worked a number of jobs: hospice home care nurse, school nurse, public health coordinator, and office nurse for a reproductive endocrinology group. But something about taking care of people after they’d become ill troubled her.

She knew that getting sick is often preventable—and far more expensive than staying well. “The question I kept asking myself was, ‘How can you keep people healthy?’” she says. “The other question I would ask myself, even as a young student, was, ‘How did people get here in the first place? What happened in their lives that made it impossible for them to stay healthy?’”

All at once the road ahead became clear. While continuing to work, she earned an undergraduate degree in education at Millersville University and then a BSN, MSN, and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. The doctorate was in education with a concentration in health professions education. Along the way, she picked up professional certificates in school health and advanced community health nursing.

Kinsey taught at Jefferson College of Nursing for a while and coordinated the RN-to-BSN program. She then accepted a faculty position at La Salle University School of Nursing, where she held the Independence Foundation Chair in Nursing and taught public health to graduate students. She also served as director of several nurse-managed health centers in high-risk zip codes known for health disparities, racial inequities, and limited access to quality healthcare.

Kinsey is a prolific and effective grant writer and has secured more than $50 million in federal, state, city, and foundation grants for public health initiatives. In 2001, she wrote the original proposal to fund the Nurse-Family Partnership in Philadelphia.

With the funding, the program hired 16 nurses in the first year. Soon after, she left LaSalle and established the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) under the aegis of an independent nonprofit. The program’s specially trained nurses help first-time moms in disadvantaged neighborhoods create better futures for themselves and their babies. The nurses make healthcare more accessible by bringing it directly into the home.

“I think the Nurse-Family Partnership gives people the opportunity to trust a healthcare provider who’s not with a hospital and who has their best interest at heart,” Kinsey says. “The nurses who work in the community really care about the people and do all they can to prevent bad things from happening.”

Research proves her point, showing that the partnerships between nurses and young mothers are enormously effective across many measures, from lowering child mortality and reducing abuse and neglect, to increasing maternal employment and improving the health of moms and babies.

From 2001 to 2020, Kinsey led the program as Public Health Nurse Administrator and Principal Investigator, and she co-directed the Mabel Morris Family Home Visit Program using the Parents as Teachers home-visit model to complement NFP services.

Kinsey is a pioneer in establishing urban nurse-led health centers and is highly regarded for her expertise in public health, health disparities, maternal-child health, home visitation, school health, and nursing education. Since 2018, she has been a member of the Jefferson College of Nursing Campaign Advisory Council. She is a mentor and a champion of nurses who, as she puts it, “step outside the traditional hospital nursing trajectory.”

In fall 2021, Kinsey was recognized by the National Service Office of the Nurse-Family Partnership with the Robert F. Hill Exceptional Impact Award. The Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy also singled her out with its Excellence Award for advancing of nurse-led care in Philadelphia. 

Like a true public health professional, Kinsey knows it’s not about the accomplishment of one individual: It’s about the connections. “To me,” she says, “the awards are part of a life that grew, but they also have to do with the people I’ve worked with side by side and have loved over many years.”

Susan Pickering, MEd, BSN, RN, an NFP nurse home visitor for 11 years, is one of them. “The work we do as public health nurses assisting extremely vulnerable families is very hard and sometimes very sad,” she says. “Kay is the first to acknowledge the truth of that and provides support in myriad ways.”

When she was brand new on the job, Pickering bumped into Kinsey at the NFP offices. “She had interviewed me for my position, but we hadn’t had very much interaction beyond that,” Pickering recalls. “So, when she greeted me with great warmth and a brief-but-genuine hug, I thought, ‘This is a different kind of place. I think I’m going to like it.’ I love it, in fact.”

The road Kinsey had taken is more than the road less traveled that diverged from the usual nursing-career trajectory. It’s the road of connections: the one where many roads converged. And that has made all the difference.