When Deborah Dillon isn’t teaching or seeing patients as a nurse practitioner, one of her favorite pastimes is sailing.
“You have to set your sails based on wind direction,” she says. “Then you have to be patient to get to where you’re going. It’s not about the destination. It’s about how you get there –– the sail.”
Dillon has navigated a challenging professional path all her life, from being a hospital’s first acute care nurse practitioner to participating in groundbreaking — and lifesaving — research on implantable heart devices.
She also helps others navigate their own paths. Most recently, she is the founding director of Duquesne University’s Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner MSN and Post‑Master’s Certificate programs. The online programs, which she leads, prepare current and aspiring nurse practitioners to work with hemodynamically unstable patients in hospitals who range in age from young adults to older adults.
From Note-Taking to Nursing
Dillon is used to putting others first. When she was growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, her parents instilled the importance of education in their five children. Although all the siblings later earned master’s degrees, their parents couldn’t afford to send both Dillon and her twin sister to college at the same time.
Dillon deferred to her sister and took an office job. Working at an insurance company, she made friends with a nurse. To Dillon, a self-described “people person,” nursing seemed like an appealing career. She enrolled at a local nursing school, with the encouragement and support of a school nurse, becoming a registered nurse in 1980. Her twin is a neonatologist. “We both chose healthcare, or it chose us, we just worked at opposite ends of the age continuum,” Dillon says. “I was just fascinated with how you can help people in a time of crisis, a time of need.”
Research on Implantable Heart Devices
After a decade of working in intensive care, Dillon was headed into management. She realized, however, that her favorite part of her job was training other nurses. She earned a master’s degree and became a clinical nurse specialist. The work involved the best of all worlds: overseeing and educating staff while treating patients and participating in research.
Her first job as a clinical nurse specialist was in cardiac electrophysiology, seeing patients who had abnormal heart rhythms. Later on, she would take part in National Institutes of Health clinical trials, which involved pacemakers and other implantable devices for stimulating weakened hearts.
One trial helped persuade Medicare to allow implantable defibrillators in patients at risk of sudden cardiac arrest. Another involved adding a third lead to a pacemaker, to more effectively correct arrhythmias in patients with heart failure.
“Every day, every heartbeat, it worked on making that heart muscle work more efficiently,” Dillon says. “It took a lot of patients off the heart transplant list.”
From Nurse to Nurse Practitioner
When Dillon wasn’t training nurses, she was caring for patients recovering from heart surgery. It gave her a new aspiration: becoming a nurse practitioner (NP).
With the rise of managed care, nurse practitioners were taking on some of the functions of doctors, such as routine primary care and prescribing medications, but most NPs were in family practice. Few worked where Dillon did — in hospitals.
She returned to school again, to get certified as an acute care nurse practitioner. Instead of seeing patients during a single stage of care, she now saw them before, during, and after their hospital stays, allowing her to see the difference her work was making.
As she gained experience, she aided new NPs with navigating hospital systems and working cooperatively with physicians. The lessons led her to write Successful Transition to Practice: A Guide for the New Nurse Practitioner, published by McGraw Hill in 2020.
Her advice to new NPs is both psychological and practical. She warns that going from an expert nurse to a beginner with a lot of new responsibilities can be a humbling experience. She recommends tapping colleagues for support.
“It’s important to communicate with other nurse practitioners, because they can help you get through this,” she says. “They’ve been through it themselves.”
Creating a Nurse Practitioner Program
Eventually, Dillon’s passion for her profession meshed with another passion: her family. She was working in Charlottesville, Virginia when she found out she was going to be a grandmother. She remembers immediately saying, “I can’t be a grandmother six hours away.”
The desire to be closer to them led her to take an academic teaching position at Case Western Reserve’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland. “I really wanted a director position,” she says, “because I wanted to start a program from the ground up.”
In the spring of 2020, she learned that nearby Duquesne wanted to launch a new nurse practitioner program for her subspecialty: adult-gerontology acute care. In August 2020, she earned the opportunity to lead that effort.
Perhaps because nursing was her second career, she’s excited about helping experienced nurses become nurse practitioners. She’s particularly excited about the program’s simulation labs. For their three required campus visits, students will be able to practice procedures such as ventilator management, intubation, and placing arterial and central lines — all on high-fidelity mannequins, before seeing actual patients.
When Dillon isn’t watching her granddaughters, she enjoys planning with her husband for a bucket-list dream: completing the Great Loop.
The sailing route circles the eastern United States — up the coast to the St. Lawrence River, down the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, and back around. The couple will make the voyage in stages, during time off from directing the program.
For now, her mission is her new program, passing on her expertise and enthusiasm to the next generation of acute care nurse practitioners.
“I want to share with people how impactful you can be on patients’ lives and how rewarding that is to you as a provider,” Dillon says. “I have to say it’s the best job in the whole world.”
Discover How to Become an Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
At minimum, prospective students need to be licensed registered nurses with one year of experience in an acute care setting. Nurse practitioners and other licensed nurses with an MSN can expand their careers by getting certified as adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners. In an online program, they can complete the necessary courses without taking time away from their current jobs.
Duquesne University’s online Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner MSN and Post‑Master’s Certificate programs offer courses that cover advanced physical assessment, pharmacology and pathophysiology, as well as specialized units on adult-gerontology acute care. Explore how an MSN or a post-master’s certificate as an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner can lead to the next step in a healthcare career.