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Prevention is key

Nursing dean’s 40-year career is dedicated to improving wellness

September 17, 2021

Leah FitzGerald, PhD, FNP-BC, FAAN, dean and Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Nursing at Mount Saint Mary’s, almost missed her true calling because of her love for flowers.

“After high school, I wanted to be a florist,” says FitzGerald. “My mom said, ‘Why not try nursing?’ I did and immediately loved it!”

FitzGerald’s 40-year nursing career began at a three-year RN program at Malden Hospital in Massachusetts, where she spent 40-hour weeks in the classroom and hospital. It was rich, but the experience left her wanting more.

“After graduation, I worked in ICU/CCU (intensive care and critical care units) and quickly tired of seeing people die,” she says. “I completed my BSN and MSN from Boston College and became a family nurse practitioner, wanting to help modify patients’ behaviors to positively impact their lives.” 

Leah FitzGerald, dean of nursing, went against advice and focused on patient wellness and stress reduction before those terms became ubiquitous catchphrases
Leah FitzGerald, dean of nursing, went against advice and focused on patient wellness and stress reduction before those terms became ubiquitous catchphrases

 The next 12 years provided FitzGerald with an important insight that directed her career — decrease stressors and improve wellness. Wanting to pursue research interests, she enrolled in UCLA’s PhD in nursing program in 1999.

“Now everything is about wellness, unlike 16 years ago when I started my academic career,” she says. “It was suggested that I pick a disease or I’ll never receive funding. I didn’t want to study a disease knowing that the key to wellness was prevention.”

FitzGerald stuck to her conviction. She and a colleague received funding from the CDC to assess oral health disparity in individuals with developmental disabilities, thus allowing her to infuse content into graduate nursing curriculum.   

FitzGerald has a sustained record for improving access to care for disadvantaged populations.  She was an invited panelist with the Institute of Medicine, “Improving Access to Oral Health Care for Vulnerable and Underserved Populations.” While a member of the faculty at UCLA, FitzGerald developed a partnership with First 5 LA and the UCLA School of Dentistry, serving as a faculty expert. She has organized more than 200 clinical hours for more than 50 nursing students, serving 1500-plus vulnerable clients. 

When FitzGerald was hired as the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Nursing in 2015, she felt an immediate connection to the Mount’s commitment to serve the community. “I love the rich history of the CSJs and believe in the University’s mission,” she says. In 2016, she became dean of nursing.  

While at the Mount, FitzGerald’s work expanded to creating a cloud-based software learning platform, “Passport to Wellness,” to teach nursing students the competencies required to care for defined populations using population-based strategies. “Students perform preventive health screenings for hypertension, depression, dental problems, etc., and provide a summary that patients can share with their healthcare provider,” she says.  

Thanks in part to being a strong advocate and a nurse innovator for interprofessional education in the health sciences, FitzGerald was selected into the 2021 class of the American Academy of Nursing Fellows. “It is such an honor and a privilege to be named a Fellow and to stand on the shoulders of the incredible 2,900 Fellows who’ve come before me,” she says. As a Fellow, FitzGerald will serve on expert panels with colleagues to transform the health of the nation.     

As for the Mount’s nursing program, her vision includes preparing nurses for high-need areas, including perioperative and primary care, as well as additional paths to nursing education. “Plans include a direct-entry master’s program for students who already have their bachelor’s degree,” she says, “with a natural expansion to a DNP program.”

FitzGerald feels like her career has come full circle. “I know I am where I am supposed to be,” she says. “I am honored to be part of creating the compassionate and understanding nurses the Mount is known for, particularly at a time where they’re needed more than ever.”