Long-time JRMC nursing exec retires

Brian Thomas (left) Jefferson Regional Medical Center president and chief executive officer, presents the Louise Hickman Scholarship for the Jefferson Regional School of Nursing. The award is named for the retiring Hickman (right.) The hospital Board of Directors established the scholarship in Hickman's honor and funded it with $10,000. (Special to The Commercial/Jefferson Regional Medical Center)

For the last 35 years, Louise Hickman has been a fixture at Jefferson Regional Medical Center. From her first position as a unit nurse to more than 18 years as chief nursing officer, Hickman has seen Jefferson Regional transform from a community hospital to a medical center that's constantly expanding.

But now, Hickman is preparing to turn it all over to the next generation. Research indicates Hickman is the longest tenured chief nursing officer in Arkansas.

Retirement has been on Hickman's mind for a couple of years, and she finally took the plunge and clocked out for the last time on May 19. The staff at Jefferson Regional celebrated her career with a retirement party on May 17 and Hickman had a chance to look back over her decades-long commitment to health care.

Hickman received her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Arkansas State University in 1980, going to work after graduation in the intensive care unit at Methodist Hospital in Paragould. From there she traveled to Mountain Home to work as a nurse manager, and in 1988, she was recruited to Jefferson Regional.

"I started work in a leap year," said Hickman. "I think it was Feb. 29 of 1988. I came here to start the open-heart program. The Cardiovascular ICU was my piece of it, and of course we didn't even have the professional building yet, certainly didn't have JPC II. All these physician offices we have obtained are a big difference from the '80s," Hickman said.

"There was no White Hall facility, no Watson Chapel, none of that. It was very different. I've opened and closed so many departments, I can't keep up with them!"

She was serving as director of surgery, and ICU was part of that program. ICU was a 19-bed unit, and there was also a Critical Care Unit (CCU). Then a Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) opened and business was booming.

"I had all those areas, and we launched the open-heart program with Dr. Bo Busby. It was a big success with a lot of great outcomes," Hickman said.

She worked in the ICU until 1995 and was studying for her master's degree in Little Rock at night.

"One morning our CEO at the time, Bob Atkinson, stopped by my office and said, 'I need your help; I need you to be the interim vice president in charge of nursing.' I had never done anything like that before and had not yet completed my master's, but he assured me they had confidence in me and that I would have plenty of help, so I took the interim position for six months. After that, I started picking up more nursing units. Then I went to quality, and then I was the corporate compliance officer for a couple of years.

"In 2003, Mr. Atkinson came to me and said he needed my help again. He wanted me to be the VP over nursing. I thought, OK, things are a little different now. I had my master's by that time, so I told him, 'I will give you six months, and at the end of that time, I'll tell you whether I'm interested in applying for the position permanently or not. I did apply, I was hired, and I stayed in that position for 18 and a half years.'"

In January 2022, Hickman transitioned to the position of vice president/chief clinical officer. Then, after both she and her husband, Kenneth, experienced some health issues, Hickman began seriously thinking about retirement.

In 2016, Hickman became ill and had one cardiac stent implanted, followed by open heart surgery for a five-vessel bypass. Doctors found six cardiac blockages, including one that could be stented, and Hickman was able to wait a few months and have elective surgery for a five-vessel heart bypass. After an appropriate recovery time, she was back at work.

Then in February 2022, Kenneth Hickman was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He underwent treatment at the Jefferson Regional Jones-Dunklin Cancer Center and is currently in remission.

"That cancer center is the best thing we've done for this hospital," Hickman said. "Wonderful treatment, great service, great physicians and staff, and very comprehensive care. They make you feel like family over there."

Looking back, Hickman was asked about other success stories and some of her proudest moments at Jefferson Regional.

"When I was in quality, I got to be on the selection committee for the new electronic documentation system," Hickman said, "and before we implemented it, I moved to the VP position. Since we chose nursing to try it out first, I got to experience it from both sides, and that was a huge accomplishment. We also started a clinical ladder program for our nurses, a nursing residency program, and in 2006, I managed to get my entire nursing management team to the BSN level, which was the first time that had happened. We started introducing robots into our surgical area and we built a brand-new Emergency Department, which I got to help design."

At the top of Hickman's greatest achievements while at Jefferson Regional was the birth of her son, Caleb, who is preparing to begin his third year of medical school. Caleb plans to be an interventional cardiologist.

"My first priorities are getting the new house together and getting Caleb through medical school," she said.

Hickman's new home is near Searcy, about 45 minutes from where her son is living, and about an hour and a half in either direction from her family and Kenneth's.

"I'm still a little nervous about retirement," Hickman admits, "because I've worked all my life and I'm afraid after a few months I'm going to get bored! But I also believe it's the right time to retire," Hickman said. "I had reached a few milestones ... 35 years on staff, longest tenured nursing CNO ... and I was ready to turn things over to someone else in nursing. After a certain period of time, you need some fresh blood, so I could tell it was time."

And just in case she does get a little restless, Hickman is looking at some options for doing a little work from home -- just not too much.

"We haven't explored the area much yet and we'll visit family. Plus, I love to read and I have a huge back porch, so I'm going to put my swing there and my coffee and my book, and just look out over the property," Hickman said.

It's a big change , but one Hickman ultimately feels good about.

"I think I'm fair and consistent, I'm respected, and I feel I'm leaving Jefferson Regional in a good place," she said.

And while Hickman would always be remembered for her many accomplishments, there has been an official declaration that guarantees it.

"The Board of Directors established a School of Nursing scholarship in my name," Hickman said, "and seeded it with $10,000. I was shocked, and so surprised ... they made my legacy!"