By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
As someone with an established tenure in nursing, Vandalyn “Van” McGrue treats more than just her patients.
“It’s about helping the families of those patients. It’s about helping the community,” she said. “We are everything to that patient: we are their beautician, their counselor, their social worker. … It entails all aspects of life because some families don’t have that support system, so you have to be that. … You want to make sure they feel the passion you have for them.”
McGrue—whose credentials include Registered Nurse (RN), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)—has more than 25 years of experience as a nurse executive in both public and private health care, and in late November she was named Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) at Princeton Baptist Medical Center.
“My role is to inspire, motivate, and make sure [the nursing staff] is meeting the company’s organizational goals, as well as providing the best health care possible,” said McGrue, 52. “My role is to really work for and be that advocate for my [team], especially during [the COVID-19 pandemic].”
Getting acclimated to her new role while in the midst of a global pandemic has been an adjustment for McGrue.
“It’s been challenging, but the staff is willing to do whatever possible,” she said. “It’s like all hands on deck if you have an RN behind your name. [We are] in the field making sure we’re giving the best care possible—and that includes me.”
Even though she’s an administrator responsible for about 1,500 employees, with more than half of those being nurses and others in infection control, communications, quality, and education, McGrue said, “Once a nurse, always a nurse.”
“Although I haven’t been at the bedside for a long time, if you’re a nurse it’s just like riding a bicycle: you never forget how to do that. It’s been trying, but we’ve been able to work through it.”
Currently, nurses are not able to interact with patients the way they could pre-pandemic, and families are not allowed to visit their loved ones. In the face of those challenges, Princeton’s nurses have joined forces to go above and beyond, and McGrue is very proud of the fact that everyone works in sync.
“They are awesome,” she said. “They all work together for the good of the patients.”
McGrue, from Alpine, Alabama, in Talladega County, was mostly raised by her grandparents. Her mother, Faith, was a nurse, and her father, Jerry, was a chief master sergeant in the U.S. Army, both occupations that McGrue would pursue.
“My parents provided a very good life for me, and my grandparents were big advocates for education and careers,” McGrue said. “They really wanted their offspring to have a good education, so that is where I got that motivation to learn something [new] every day.”
Her grandparents, Eashmon and Viola Keith, were strict disciplinarians, as well.
“I had a potty mouth, and I don’t know why, [maybe] because my dad was in the military. My grandmother made me realize very quickly that she was not going to tolerate that,” McGrue said.
“[My grandparents] promoted education, and I didn’t appreciate it at the time—but now I do . . . My grandfather dropped out of school in the sixth or seventh grade, but he was able to teach himself to read. My grandmother dropped out in the ninth grade, but she went back to get her GED. They were motivators for me to see how they struggled and see what all they accomplished.”
McGrue’s grandmother was the cafeteria manager at her school, and her grandfather worked at a textile mill.
Family of Nurses
McGrue comes from a family of nurses, including her mom and two aunts.
“My mom was a nurse for 40 years, and I knew between the ages of 12 and 15 that I wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “My mom really put some of her career plans on hold to make sure I succeeded.”
McGrue was active in a local public speaking program, where she earned several prizes, and in her church, Bethel Baptist Church in Alpine, where she has been a member since she was 8 years old. She attended Hannah J. Mallory Elementary School and Talladega County Training High School. In high school, she continued with public speaking; she also was a majorette in the marching band, senior class president, and salutatorian of her graduating class.
After graduating from high school in 1986, McGrue enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she completed before transferring to Jacksonville State University (JSU) for its nursing program. She graduated from JSU in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing and took a position at a hospital in Anniston, Alabama, as a nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) and the medical-surgery (med-surg) unit.
“I did that for maybe a year until the time I went into the military in 1994. I went into the U.S. Air Force because of my dad and his experience. My dad was very proud. He had the video recorder out when I was sworn in,” said McGrue, who spent four years in the Air Force, which she joined as a second lieutenant.
“I made rank really fast because I went in as a nurse,” she added. “I had to learn quickly that I was an officer first and a nurse second. Overall, that was the best career I had for those four years, just being able to serve my country. It taught me discipline. It taught me that I needed to know how to multitask and how to be cross-trained, as well.”
After being stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, she left the Air Force in 1998, as a captain, to spend more time with her daughter, Judith Elizabeth, who was almost a year old at the time.
“When I first had my daughter, [who is now 23], I was a single parent. … I married my husband, Geno, [in 2003, when my daughter was 5 years old]. That’s her stepdad, [but he adopted her],” said McGrue. “In the beginning, it was challenging because I was a traveling nurse. … [We] just really had to find that balance.”
McGrue and her husband met while they were working together. He was a dialysis biomedical technician at the time, but he now works part-time as a director of inventory for a company in Oxford, Alabama.
Back to the Basics
After leaving the military, McGrue took a position as a dialysis nurse at Northeast Alabama Kidney Clinic.
“I was quickly promoted to facility manager, managing one facility,” she said. “Then I [took] a regional position for which I covered three states—Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia—and worked in different clinics in those states.”
McGrue served as regional director for the clinic from 1999 to 2009, managing 50 employees and overseeing day-to-day operations. That company was eventually bought out, so she returned home to work for Citizen’s Baptist Medical Center in Talladega and be closer to her family. During that time, she also earned her MSN and DNP degrees from JSU in 2013 and 2019, respectively.
McGrue is a member of the American Nurses Association and the Association of Perioperative Nursing and Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, as well as the American Nephrology Nurses Association. She also is an adjunct professor in the medical assistant’s program at Central Alabama Community College in Talladega.
“It was good because I was teaching the medical assistant program and I was able to see the outcome. [Most of the students are] high schoolers or straight out of high school, so they taught me a lot of different ways to teach [in a way that effectively] gets that message over to that generation,” she said. “I think I’ve taught them something along the way, and they’ve also taught me something.”
When McGrue took the position at Princeton, she said it was a “full-circle moment.”
“When I first started with Citizens [Baptist Medical Center in Talladega] before taking the job at Princeton, I had a mentor, … Regina Yarbrough, [who] was the CNO at Princeton at the time—and that had always been my goal,” said McGrue. “I would just say little dreams in my head like, ‘I wish to be a CNO at Princeton,’ and, lo and behold, that dream came true.”