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Deborah Thedford-Zimmerman: Hard at Work — In Retirement

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Debroah Thedford-Zimmerman served as president of the Birmingham Black Nurses Association from 2017 to 2019. During her term as president, she focused on getting BBNA more involved in the Birmingham community. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

By Javacia Harris Bowser | For the Birmingham Times

Ask Deborah Thedford-Zimmerman what she does in a typical week, and it will be hard to believe that she’s retired. Thedford-Zimmerman, who has been recognized as one of the top nurses in Alabama, retired in 2017 – but her busy schedule shows she’s still hard at work.

She’s deeply involved with the Birmingham Black Nurses Association, organizes health-related activities for her church, Rising Star Baptist Church in Rising-West Princeton, and volunteers with a host of other local organizations, including Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies, which offers breast cancer education and support for Black women and other underserved communities.

“When I was in kindergarten, my teacher would always say, ‘Give to the world the best that you have, and the best will come back to you,’ and it is so true,” Thedford-Zimmerman told The Birmingham Times. “If you give of yourself, you can’t help but be rewarded.”

In 2021, Thedford-Zimmerman, a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Lawson State Community College, was selected as Volunteer of the Year by the UAB National Alumni Society. That same year she was also recognized by This is Alabama, Alabama Media Group and the Alabama State Nurses Association as one of the Top Nurses in the state.

But Thedford-Zimmerman doesn’t do any of her work for accolades. She’s on a mission to help mold Black nurses into the leaders she feels Black patients need.

“We serve as a patient advocate, we serve as cultural liaisons and we become a beacon of hope for people,” she said.

“I Wanted To Be A Nurse”

Thedford-Zimmerman knew she wanted to be a nurse long before she even knew what the profession entailed.

When she was nine or 10 years old, she would sit on the porch of her family’s home in the Rising-West Princeton neighborhood of Birmingham and watch a young Black nurse named Gwendolyn Collins. Collins’ mother-in-law lived across the street from Thedford-Zimmerman and would babysit Collins’ children while she was at work.

Each day Thedford-Zimmerman looked forward to seeing Collins come to pick up her kids.

“She was meticulously dressed,” Thedford-Zimmerman recalled. “The uniform was crisp white, her shoes were white as snow and she was beautiful. And when the weather was cool, she would wear this cape around her uniform.”

Collins was a real-life hero. “Just from looking at her, I knew I wanted to be a nurse,” Thedford-Zimmerman recalled.

After graduating from West End High School, Thedford-Zimmerman took on the role of wife and mother instead. And for a while she considered going back to school to become a teacher. But then a neighbor fanned the flames of her first love when she informed Thedford-Zimmerman that Spain Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham was hiring nursing assistants.

“She said, ‘You’d be really good at it because you’re very caring and loving,’” Thedford-Zimmerman said. “So, I went over, and I applied for the job, and I got it and I started working as a nursing assistant at Spain Rehab. That just compounded my desire to be a nurse.”

So, she went to nursing school at Lawson State Community College, where she graduated in 1978 and later earned a nursing degree from UAB.

Throughout her career, Thedford-Zimmerman has worked at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, Children’s of Alabama, and UAB Hospital. She started her career as a wound, ostomy, and continence nurse and later worked in the burn and trauma unit at UAB and finished her career as a bariatric surgery coordinator at UAB.

A Voice for Black Nurses

In 2009, Thedford-Zimmerman joined the Birmingham Black Nurses Association, which is one of 115 chapters of the National Black Nurses Association.

“The mission of the organization did it for me,” Thedford-Zimmerman said when asked why it was important for her to get involved. The National Black Nurses Association and its local chapters like the Birmingham Black Nurses Association seek to help Black patients receive optimum quality of care by setting standards, conducting research and working to influence health care-related legislation. Most of all, the organization aims to mentor and serve as a voice for future and current Black nurses.

Thedford-Zimmerman served as president of the Birmingham Black Nurses Association from 2017 to 2019. During her term as president, she focused on getting BBNA more involved in the Birmingham community.

“I wanted the Birmingham Black Nurses Association to be a household name,” she said. “I wanted people to know that we were an organization that you could go to for help and that we were there to support our African American community.”

To elevate BBNA’s visibility, the group participated in charity and awareness walks for sickle cell disease, heart disease, and breast cancer; in community health fairs, taught CPR at local schools and helped local churches obtain AED machines.

Thedford-Zimmerman does plenty of community service on her own as well. She serves as co-chair for her church’s health care ministry, participates in Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies annual Sistah Strut and volunteers with Pulse Finders, which offers CPR and first aid training.

Even after her presidency, Thedford-Zimmerman remains committed to the Birmingham Black Nurses Association.

She’s the group’s historian, keeping track of the organization’s activities and impact. She serves on the membership committee with a goal of increasing the number of members to 350 from 208. She’s a part of the community service committee, marking sure the organization remains active throughout Birmingham. And one of her top priorities is serving as chair of the organization’s Leadership Academy – a year-long program designed to help improve leadership skills in Black nurses.

“Thirty percent of the American population is Black and only 7 percent of nurses are Black,” Thedford-Zimmerman said. She wants to change that number and believes the way to do it is to make Black nurses stronger leaders and to expose Black students to the profession.

“We’re Really Needed”

The National Black Nurses Association works to spark an interest in nursing through its Mini Nurse Academy, for grades 3 through 8.

The Birmingham Black Nurses Association has hosted its own Mini Nurse Academy at Tarrant Elementary School and Memorial Park. Thedford-Zimmerman added that they also hope to launch a nursing camp for high schoolers.

“Black women are more likely than any other race or ethnic group to die from cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke,” Thedford-Zimmerman said adding that while individuals can improve their health through behavioral changes, institutional changes are needed to dismantle racial disparities in health care.

“One way I feel to combat women’s health disparities is to include them and clinical research,” she said.

Another way – employ more Black nurses.

“Research has shown that when Black health care workers interact with Black patients, they have better outcome and they are better informed,” she said. “So, I really do feel that we’re really needed.”

When Thedford-Zimmerman isn’t busy with Birmingham Black Nurses Association and her other community service, she enjoys spending time with her 12 grandchildren, reading books by the late Eric Jerome Dickey, and taking road trips with her husband, Harris Zimmerman – who often jokes that she should be paid for all the volunteer work she does.

But Thedford-Zimmerman has her sights on something bigger than a paycheck.

“I really hope that I have been a true mentor to those behind me and that someone has been made a better nurse because of me,” she said. “And if I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t do it any different.”