UAB nurse Dale Davis ends retirement to return to the bedside

Dale Davis, RN

Dale Davis, RN, BSN, is having a full-circle moment.

He retired in July 2023 after 29 years at UAB Medicine, but after just one week, Davis returned to work where his UAB career first began: in the UAB Emergency Department as a nurse.

In his nearly three decades at UAB Medicine, Davis played a key role in starting and growing cutting-edge programs, from medical simulation training to the military-civilian partnership that brings United States Air Force personnel to train at UAB.

A lifelong passion

Even before coming to UAB, Davis was on a path to make an impact in emergency care for the lives of many, as he recognized his calling early. He loved the 1970s show “Emergency!”, which introduced him to the world of paramedics. As a teenager, Davis was a lifeguard and underwent training with the American Red Cross.

At age 16, his skills were put to the test. He was on Logan Martin Lake when he heard screaming. A woman had fallen out of her boat and lost her leg after getting it stuck in the propeller. She was face down in the water, but Davis was able to save her from drowning. He tied a tourniquet on her severed leg, saving her from bleeding out as well.

“That’s where it all started for me,” Davis said. “Knowing that you saved someone, it puts this desire in your heart to continue doing what you can for your fellow human beings.”

When first responders eventually arrived on the scene, they told Davis that he did a great job in saving the woman’s life and encouraged him to become a firefighter. And so he did, first becoming a volunteer firefighter as a teen then serving as a full-time firefighter and EMT for seven years.

Davis talks about the emotional toll and trauma that come with being a first responder, due to seeing house fires, vehicles flipped upside down, and wrecked 18-wheelers with cars wedged underneath. He admits that he became reckless in his personal life to cope with the mental stress of his job.

This recklessness after hours led to Davis needing emergency care himself after getting into two car accidents. A third accident would change the course of his life.

Brain injury leads to nursing degree

While Davis was in Mexico with family on vacation, he was riding a motorcycle without a helmet on a windy mountain road. He took a tight curve and went off the steep side of a cliff headfirst. He sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and had to be airlifted to Florida for medical attention.

“The TBI set me back a few years,” Davis said. “It humbled me. I needed humbling real bad when I was in my 20s.”

Davis had to learn to read and write again. His mother used the Bible at the bedside to help him learn to read again, and Davis continued his journey of learning by taking remedial classes at Jefferson State Community College. He furthered his education after being accepted to the UAB School of Nursing. Davis explains his trajectory from a TBI to a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) as a “God thing,” saying that everything that happened in his life led him to where he is today.

Davis asked to do his preceptorship in the UAB Emergency Department, where he stayed for nearly 10 years. He describes the environment as “high-octane” and emphasizes the importance of every link in the patient care chain – from doctors, nurses, and X-ray technicians to respiratory therapists, chaplains, and Environmental Services.

“It takes every single person working as a team to make this place work, and you have to appreciate everybody,” Davis said.

Medical Emergency Team

Davis saw many changes in trauma care over the years, from the growth of the UAB Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery to the move from the old Emergency Department in Quarterback Tower to the North Pavilion. He said he literally locked the door to the old Emergency Department when it closed.

In 2007, after a few years in perioperative services, Davis and colleague Beth Rutledge became founding members of UAB Medicine’s new Medical Emergency Team (MET), an in-hospital first response team. The MET provides critical care for life-threatening medical emergencies within the hospital – for example, when a patient in a non-critical unit has an urgent and unanticipated change.

Davis was also tasked with bringing medical simulation training to UAB Medicine. He was sent to train at Harvard and brought what he learned back to UAB, using high-fidelity mannequins and creating real-world training scenarios to help teams learn and improve care quality. In those early days, Davis admits that he had to “sell” simulation by explaining how it would benefit medical professionals and their patients. This program has since grown into the Office of Interprofessional Simulation and now includes eight simulation spaces across the UAB Medicine campus.

Air Force comes to UAB

Davis’ passion and ability to foster connections across UAB did not go unnoticed. Jeffrey Kerby, M.D., Ph.D., now the director of the UAB Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, first connected with Davis in the 1990s, when he was a surgical resident and Davis was a young nurse. “Dale is someone who, when he walked in the room, you knew you had a trusted partner who could take care of things,” Dr. Kerby said.

After completing his residency at UAB, Dr. Kerby served in the United States Air Force as an active-duty surgeon. He returned to UAB in 2003, and Dr. Kerby soon was presented with a unique opportunity for UAB to partner with the Air Force. Pararescue jumpers (also known as PJs) and special operations medics who previously were in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina suddenly needed a new location to train. UAB Medicine, as a high-volume Level I Trauma Center, could be the perfect fit. The vision was to fully integrate the PJs and medics into the trauma teams, giving them ample hands-on opportunities to keep their medical skills sharp between deployments.

So, in 2006, Davis – with his many years of experience and hard-earned trust and respect among colleagues – once again was tasked with bringing something new to UAB Medicine. Because the request came from Dr. Kerby, Davis immediately responded “yes”, which was quickly followed by, “What’s a PJ?” He jokes that he didn’t know anything about the military before stepping into this role.

Davis handled everything in those early days. He connected with managers and nurses, explaining the program and what the PJs and medics would be doing in the hospital. He communicated with Air Force personnel all over the world and at all times of the day and night, picked them up from the airport, and set up their apartments. He scheduled their rotations, ensuring that they had a well-rounded clinical experience during their two weeks at UAB, including time in the Emergency Department, ICU, and operating room.

Because of the immersive experience at UAB, the program’s reputation grew, and word of it spread quickly. The program has tripled in size from the early days, and today it welcomes 150 PJs and medics to UAB every year, with plans to expand to 300 annually in the near future. The longstanding military-civilian relationship was formalized in 2020 with the launch of the Special Operations Center for Medical Integration and Development (SOCMID) at UAB.

“I feel so honored to have been chosen to be at the beginning of something that will continue to grow and is so important to our elite military personnel,” Davis said.

In July 2023, Davis was recognized by the Air Force for his role in the creation and success of the SOCMID. U.S. Air Force Surgeon General and Lt. Gen. Robert Miller visited UAB to learn about SOCMID firsthand, and he presented Davis with a surgeon general coin.

“Dale’s involvement has saved the lives of countless soldiers on the battlefield through developing these training programs,” Dr. Kerby said. “That’s irrefutable.”

Coming full circle

Davis said his return as a nurse in the UAB Emergency Department marks a return to something he’s always had a heart for. He is working a flexible schedule, helping out as the Emergency Department expands, and eventually he will help train younger nurses – after he gets retrained himself. Davis acknowledges that he faces a challenge and has much to learn and refresh himself on, as he hasn’t worked at the bedside in 15 years.

“You’re never too old to learn, and I’m a great example of that,” Davis said. “I hope I’m accepted by these newer nurses and that they teach me the things they know.”

Davis said he hopes to make it to 30 years of service at UAB Medicine and beyond.

“We have some of the best surgeons and nurses in the world here at UAB,” Davis said. “It doesn’t get any better than right here. And that’s an honor that I will always carry, to be able to say that I worked at UAB.”

Written by Allie Hulcher, UAB Heersink School of Medicine

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