ONS’s First African American President Shares Insights and Advice in Honor of Black History Month

February 15, 2021

When ONS Past President Mary Gullatte, PhD, RN, ANP-BC, AOCN®, LSSYB, FAAN, was elected by her peers in 2012, she said it was the “absolute pinnacle of my oncology nursing career”: Gullatte made the ONS history books as the Society’s first African American president. But the achievement has been just one part of an illustrious, 40-year career in oncology nursing and administration, holding roles like vice president of patient services, chief nursing officer, and director of oncology nursing services throughout the Emory University healthcare system in Atlanta, GA, where she currently serves as the corporate director of nursing evidence-based practice and research.

ONS Past President Mary Gullatte, PhD, RN, ANP-BC, AOCN®, LSSYB, FAAN
ONS Past President Mary Gullatte, PhD, RN, ANP-BC, AOCN®, LSSYB, FAAN

During that career, Gullatte has been dedicated to disseminating evidence into practice, presenting at conferences in 15 countries on six of the seven continents and publishing articles in various peer-reviewed journals. She authored ONS’s 21st Century Nursing Leadership book, which was recognized as an American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year, and is the lead editor of ONS’s fourth edition of the Chemotherapy Handbook.

Gullatte has received awards from ONS and other nursing or cancer organizations throughout her career and is a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing (AAN). In addition to her time on the ONS Board of Directors, Gullatte served on the Joint Commission Nursing Advisory Board and the AAN Board of Directors.

But a career like that doesn’t happen overnight. In honor of Black History Month, Gullatte shared her oncology nursing journey, the role that ONS and her family have served in her career and personal life, and the insights and advice she’s learned over the years for nursing leaders.

How long have you been a nurse?

43 years

What led you to oncology nursing?

I wanted to be a nurse from elementary school. My nursing interest was first piqued when I was in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. I started to volunteer at the base hospital and was assigned to the pediatric and women’s medical/surgical ward, where I assisted the nurses with some of the post-op gynecologic patients. Most of the women had abdominal hysterectomies for ovarian and uterine cancers. The nurses quickly picked up on my interest, took me under their wings, and started letting me essentially help them as a volunteer nurses aid.

My interest in oncology came when I was in my first clinical rotation in nursing school. My first student patient assignment was an African American man in his 50s with stage IV colon cancer. With the limited treatment options back then, he had only received Cobolt therapy and had transitioned to palliative care in a general medical unit. I could not understand how your normal cells could mutate and spread and kill you or that we could not make him better or cure his disease, so I began to read to understand more about this disease and why it affects the whole person—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and at any age. I began to understand why in those days, the “big C” was dreaded and seen as a death sentence.

I began my nursing career at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, GA, and requested the medical oncology unit, but it had no vacancies at that time, so they offered me a position on the leukemia unit. My passion and thirst for more knowledge about cancer was affirmed, and I knew that this was my purpose.

How has being a nurse of color shaped who you are as a nurse?

In early formal nursing education, I was one of only two African American students in the nursing program, which had no faculty of color. When I began at Emory, except for my head nurse on the leukemia unit the only others who looked like me were nurses aids and custodial staff who were surprised to know that I was an RN. We all became friends. At that time, I was one of only five Black RNs in the hospital and the only staff nurse on my unit. I felt welcomed and embraced by my nurse colleagues, many of whom were older than me.

Many times, I thought about being the only African American in the room or at the table, but it never stopped me from seeking opportunities and growth experience in all areas of nursing: practice, academia, and research. I am very fortunate to have started my career at an academic medical center where the trifold mission was and still is practice, education, and research. Not only did my race play a role in my community outreach around cancer prevention and early detection, but it also gave me a foundation for mentoring other nurses who looked like me to come into this sphere of cancer nursing.

What are some of the challenges that Black nurses experience in the profession? How have you navigated those?

I believe the first challenge is preparation for admission into nursing programs. But even earlier than that, I believe it was not having role models in the community or healthcare encounters with people who looked like us. I only became interested in nursing as an elementary student from a public health nurse who would visit our segregated school to administer immunizations, and she looked like me. It was her calm voice and compassion—and of course her blue-and-red cape, white uniform, and cap—that first caught my attention as a six-year-old. After each injection she would sit us in her lap, give us a hug, and say, “It’s okay, it’s all over now, you will be all right,” until we stopped crying. I couldn’t wait until my turn for the shot so that the regal woman would hold me and talk to me, and I wanted to be like her when I grew up.

What was your first experience with ONS?

As a graduate student at Emory, my professor Rose McGee encouraged all of us to join ONS, and my first head nurse on the leukemia unit, Nelza Levine, was African American, an ONS member, and one of my first mentors. As a member, I would read the Oncology Nursing Forum from cover to cover, and I remember attending my first Congress in early 1980s and could not believe all the nurses with the same passion and devotion to oncology nursing as me.  

As a new head nurse, I joined the ONS nursing management committee, chaired by Sharon Krumm (one of my early administration mentors); this was the beginning of my national board involvement. It was a wonderful experience, but of course I was the only nurse of color on the committee, although it never bothered me personally because that had always been my experience.

What role has ONS served in your career?

Early in my career, it connected me at the annual Congress with oncology nurse leaders to serve as mentors, coaches, and role models. Then the opportunities to develop my association leadership skills grew: serving on committees, presenting at Congress, editing two award winning books (one as a first-time book editor), election to and serving on the ONS Board of Directors, and ultimately becoming the first African American to be elected as ONS president—what an extraordinary honor!

What relationships and connections have you made through ONS that you wouldn’t have found otherwise?

There are too many to name across every sphere of oncology nursing: I have mentors and protégés in practice, academia, and research. Because of them, I also achieved a dream to get my PhD. ONS members Kathi Mooney and Suzie Beck invited me to apply for to the doctoral program at the University of Utah College of Nursing, and I had met them both through ONS Congress, while serving on ONS national committees, and as a first-time board member. Building those connections is about relationships, service, and scholarship. I would always make it a point to introduce myself to ONS leaders to make sure they knew my name and what my aspirations were, and if warranted, I’d ask them to be my mentor. Each time they graciously agreed. As oncology nurses we all have a responsibility to pay it forward.

How did you get involved in ONS leadership?

I have always gravitated to leadership, even during my service in the Air Force. As a nurse it was natural for me to reach for the stars. I was raised to believe in myself, dream big, apply myself, and that I could do or achieve anything if I truly wanted it despite environmental and social circumstances that might try to keep me back. My parents had wisdom and knew what it would take for their children to be successful and achieve even more that they could possibly imagine, and they instilled those principles and values in each of us. It worked!

You’ve made ONS history as its first—and so far only—Black president. What has serving as ONS president meant to you?

To be elected on a national level by my peers was the absolute pinnacle of my oncology nursing career, and I will always treasure the honor and privilege of serving as the ONS president and ambassador. It gave me an opportunity to travel, to meet oncology nurses around the country and the world, and to engage in dialogue about transforming cancer care and improving nursing leadership. I was a woman of color and had the opportunity to be the face and voice of ONS at the White House, on Capitol Hill, at local ONS meetings across the country, at ONS Leadership Development Institute programs, and at international oncology nursing and medical conferences. It just does not get any better than that!  

Your ONS presidency platform was about leadership. What words of wisdom do you have for nurses about leadership? And any special advice for Black nurses in particular, based on your own experiences?

First, I philosophically believe that every nurse is a leader. It is not about a job title. I would say to all oncology nurses do not let your circumstances dictate your destiny! My advice specifically to nurses of color, believe in yourself, dream big, find a mentor, seek out opportunities for yourself, and dare to believe that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to. Build positive relationships, inspire, and empower others along the way. Those are marks of true servant and transformational leaders.

What has been your proudest moment as an oncology nurse?

There are too many to count, but these may be the highlights:

You’ve mentioned your family influence; it’s clear that it’s had a big role in your personal and professional history. Tell us more about that.

My parents were critical role models and truly influenced my life. My husband and I will celebrate 43 years of marriage on February 25, 2021. That is quite significant, given the stereotype of the broken Black family with a single-mother household and absent father. Our son is also an Air Force veteran and a small business owner in cyber security, with offices in Key West and Colorado Springs, and the first Black president of the Colorado Springs Rotary Club. Our daughter has master’s degrees in bioinformatics and healthcare administration and works for an oncology data analytics firm in San Francisco. Both have also had happy marriages for more than 10 years.

I am one of 10 children; one of my sisters is an RN in Veterans Affairs, and another is the first African American mayor of our small Mississippi hometown. Six of us served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and our dad served in WWII. He was a big rig driver, and our mother was a domestic worker. In Mississippi they were not able to advance beyond elementary school because they had to work in the fields—that is why their wisdom was greater than their knowledge. They could never have imagined all that we would achieve because of them.

All of my achievements came from very humble beginnings with lots of love. We did not feel poor because we had too much love and learned high self-confidence. 

What words would you say describe you?

Passionate and purpose driven. I believe in empowering nurses to achieve beyond what they think they can do. I am a mentor and coach to countless nurses locally, nationally, and internationally in the profession and people in my community. I believe in inspiring and empowering the next generation of oncology nurse leaders and leading with motive and intent from the heart. Aspiration and inspiration mixed with motivation and committed action yields success.


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