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Industry Mourns Passing of Longtime VA Chief Nurse Vernice D. Ferguson

International nursing leader Vernice Doris Ferguson, MA, RN, FAAN, FRCN, died Dec. 8 at her home in Washington, DC. She was 84.

Ferguson was nationally and internationally known for her leadership role in fostering excellence in nursing care and in the nursing profession.

From 1980-1992, she served as the nurse executive for nursing programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest organized nursing service in the world with more than 60,000 nursing personnel. She was the first nurse appointed deputy assistant chief medical director for nursing programs. And she was also chief nurse at two VA Medical Centers affiliated with academic health science centers in Madison, WI and Chicago.

As the chief nurse in the Veterans Administration, Ferguson set up nursing research programs and was instrumental in establishing the Veterans Administration Health Professional Scholarship Program, which proved crucial in recruiting and retaining qualified nurses in the system.

Prior to the VA assignment, she served from 1972-1980 as the Nursing Department chief at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health.

Additionally, she helped create the Secretary of Health and Human Services' Annual Award for Excellence in Nursing as a way to inspire caregivers. She also traveled throughout the country evaluating conditions and looking for ways to educate the staff nurses and help them value their work.

Born June 13, 1928, in Fayetteville, NC, Ferguson received her Bachelor of Science and nursing certificate from New York University and Bellevue Nursing Center in 1950, and earned a master's degree from Columbia University Teacher's College in 1957. She also attended Fisk University.

She was a science teacher in the Baltimore school system and commenced her nursing career as head nurse of the Neoplastic Metabolic Research Unit at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Being a member of a research team stimulated her respect for the value of nursing research and opened a new direction in her professional development.

Following her retirement from federal service, Ferguson was appointed Senior Fellow, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, holding the Fagin Family Chair in Diversity.

Ferguson was also an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom, the second American nurse so honored, and she was a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and past president. 

Her awards and honors are numerous, including eight honorary doctorates. She was the recipient of two fellowships, one in physics at the University of Maryland and the other in alcohol studies at Yale University.

She was a past president of Sigma Theta Tau, nursing's international honor society. In her inaugural message to Sigma Theta Tau in 1985, she urged her colleagues to develop their own roles as mentors: "Tip the scale in favor of the budding young researchers, educators, administrators, and entrepreneurs, for they will provide the scholarly leadership for the profession and health care in the years to come."

She also was the first nurse to receive a Freddie Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The Freddie Awards are presented by the MediMedia Foundation to recognize excellence in electronic, health-related and educational materials. Previous honorees include Jonas Salk, Bill and Melinda Gates, Christopher Reeve, and Jerry Lewis. She also was recognized by New York University College of Nursing with its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010. 

In 1995, Ferguson spent nine weeks in South Africa serving as Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Nursing Science at the University of the North West. While in South Africa in her capacity as president of the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care, she toured the country extensively. She met health care providers in university nursing programs and visited homes in townships and squatter camps. She conducted workshops and presentations, most of which were geared to cancer care and health policy issues. She used her abilities as a consummate teacher to lead her international humanitarian efforts.

Most recently, she served on the Quality Care Committee of the Bon Secours Health Care System, the Independence Foundation's Advisory Committee on Nurse Managed Primary Health Care Initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellows Advisory Committee and the Board of Overseers, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She also was immediate past chairman of the Nova Foundation of the Nurses Organization of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

At the 25th anniversary celebration of the American Academy of Nursing in 1998, Vernice Ferguson was honored as a "Living Legend," an exemplary role model whose contributions continue to make an impact on the provisions of healthcare in the United States and internationally. 

"Dr. Ferguson was a pioneer in nursing leadership whose eloquent and inspirational leadership energized several generations of nursing leaders throughout the globe," said New York University College of Nursing's Dean Eileen M. Sullivan-Marx, PhD, RN, FAAN. "She felt deeply about diversity and rights of all people and moved us all forward."

A much sought-after speaker, Ferguson was legendary for presentations that were both imaginative and challenging. As a frequent contributor to research journals, she recognized the need for nurses to interact with many publics and encouraged her colleagues to be actively involved in community and professional organizations. She was recently profiled as one of five contemporary pacesetters of the nursing profession in Leadership for Change: An Action Guide for Nurses.

Her teaching appointments included the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Illinois, Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ferguson is survived by her sister, Velma O. Ferguson, of Colorado Springs, CO, six nieces and nephews and many great nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is planned at New York University College of Nursing in early 2013. 

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