The Dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University and transformational global leader in nursing and education will be receiving the 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal
Service is a way of being for Gina Brown. When she sees someone in need, she stops to help.
So it’s no surprise that she did just that during one of the biggest marathon races of her life. Dr. Brown was just one race away from the coveted Abbott Star, a six-star medal given to runners that participate in the six major marathons in the world: Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, London, Berlin, and New York.
“A fellow runner had fallen ill, so I stopped to help as a nurse,” she explained. “And by the time I got to the finish line, the race had already finished. They still gave me a medal, but my time didn’t count towards my Abbott Star because I was being a human first and a runner second.”
The dream of holding that medal never faded from her mind. Two years later, she ran the Boston Marathon once more, finally finishing with her Abbott Star.
“It was all worth it. I learned that you can’t give up,” she said.
Such tenacity and unabashed humanity has marked every chapter of Dr. Brown’s life and career.
For upwards of three decades, Gina Brown, PhD, MSA, RN, FAAN, has worked tirelessly to improve healthcare and education across the continents of North America, Asia, and Africa. For Dr. Brown, humanism in healthcare is for everyone, everywhere – it has no borders.
Since 2015, she has served as Dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University, one of the oldest historically Black universities in the nation. Dr. Brown is engaged with a wide spectrum of nursing leaders and interdisciplinary healthcare professionals to advance inclusive healthcare in America. She has served as a Commissioner for the National League for Nursing Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation and sits on a number of other senior academic boards. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.
Championing diversity, equity, and inclusion are hallmarks of her work. Dr. Brown has spoken on 5 continents on such issues as health disparities, social justice, and religious liberty. Dr. Brown has been a speaker at several Gold Foundation conferences, bringing her keen insights into humanistic care. She has lent her vast administrative and academic experience to the development of both graduate and undergraduate programs. She has also brought her expertise in curriculum development to international programs, including schools and hospitals in Ghana, the Philippines, and Tanzania.
In recognition of her transformational global leadership, innovative educational practices, and embodiment of nursing at its most human, Dr. Brown will be receiving the National Humanism in Medicine Medal at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 20.
She will be presented the medal this year alongside Dr. Richard I. Levin, visionary physician President and CEO of the Gold Foundation; the Honorable Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, national health policy leader, founding Dean and President Emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, pioneering leader in nursing education and practice, innovative researcher, and global public health expert. Dr. Sullivan-Marx is also Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and has partnered with Dr. Brown in establishing a synergistic collaboration between their two nursing schools at Howard University and NYU.
“Gina is a stellar champion for nurses and patients, always caring with her whole heart and making a difference in a thousand ways. We are delighted to honor her and her great impact on healthcare in America and abroad,” said Richard C. Sheerr, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Gold Foundation. “Her passion for her fellow humans is embedded in all of her work – at Howard University and in many countries across the globe.”
The influence of a mother’s love and example
Success always has a story, and for Dr. Brown that story is deeply personal.
Growing up in the Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia, Dr. Brown remembers poverty hovering like a dark cloud over her childhood. But through her mother’s example, Dr. Brown and her siblings learned that dreams were possible with hard work and tenacity.
Her mother was a gifted pianist and organist with dreams of becoming a professional musician. Dr. Brown would awake every morning to the sounds of her mother’s playing.
As a young mother of five children, Mrs. Spivey gave up the path of musical performance to go back to school. She often brought Dr. Brown and her younger brother to the back of the classroom as she studied to become a music teacher.
“We learned the love of higher education and academia, and not making mountains out of molehills and just trying to get things done,” she said.
Dr. Brown and her brother both went on to become educators. Yet, even in education’s sweet luster, Dr. Brown saw the sharp edges of economic reality with her mother’s financial obstacles and America’s growing socioeconomic disparities.
In turn, her mother’s struggles would lead Dr. Brown to find her life’s calling.
She said, “I had decided that I wanted to become a physician at that time to really help people of color, of all colors, to really have a vibrant life.”
The power of pivoting
Dr. Brown’s long-held dream was to attend medical school. Though her finances posed an obstacle, Dr. Brown had a plan. She decided to major in nursing first as a means for eventually becoming a doctor. Once a nurse, she planned to use her income to build a financial nest to fund her time in medical school.
“I got into nursing and absolutely loved it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Who wants to become a physician when you can be a nurse? You can still have a decent income. You’re still taking care of people.’”
This pivot would prove life-changing for Dr. Brown. She wanted to become a top-of-the-line nurse. Her first two jobs were in mental health care and the ICU.
“My first job was working as a full-time ICU nurse at D.C. General, which was a black, poor, inner city hospital,” she recalled. “It was a rewarding experience. I worked in the surgical ICU where I saw individuals with a range of life-threatening injuries from gunshot wounds and head wounds to head trauma.”
A family legacy rooted in service
For Dr. Brown, service is truly a family affair. Her grandmother was an LPN. Her son is an ICU nurse. Her daughter is an attorney who works for Thermo Fisher Scientific. Many other family members also work in healthcare and go on mission trips. Dr. Brown went to India this year to give back.
She speaks about her family’s legacy with particular pride.
“Spiveys are just very great humans who really help and believe in treating people right,” she said. “If you were on the street, wouldn’t you want somebody to give you money? If you were a patient and you were homeless, wouldn’t you want somebody to wash your feet and take care of you? And so again and again in my family, we treat people humanely, no matter their race, creed, color, stature, or background.”
Dr. Brown’s father worked for the post office for 46 years. His personal constitution was treating others like he would want to be treated. Though he struggled with addiction, Dr. Brown said, he never let it get the best of his heart. Her mother’s lifelong passion for service continued into her eighties. She helped other senior citizens in the U.S. and abroad who were in need of food, clothing, and support.
A calling answered and a faith heard
Faith has always been a pillar in Dr. Brown’s life. It has guided her and inspired her to listen closely to her conscience even in moments when it didn’t speak so loudly.
As she cared for people as a nurse, Dr. Brown decided to go back to school to earn her doctorate in nursing administration from George Mason University.
She recalled, “Once I graduated, I said, ‘okay, got to teach…But I’m not going to teach schools that are struggling with funding. I’ve been poor my whole life. I’m not doing it.’”
But then she heard a different plan. “God said to me one day, ‘So you think because you went to George Mason, you can’t help people who have disparities now?”
With newfound inspiration, Dr. Brown began teaching at a struggling nursing school, where board scores were low and students were preoccupied with a host of real-world problems: poverty, marital strife, childcare challenges. She brought her students together, prayed with them, and helped them get much-needed products, like diapers, wipes, and bottles. Over time, the board passing rate rose to 100%, which helped the school come off probation.
“It was the most rewarding experience known to man,” she proudly stated.
“Be a human first”
In this time of global upheaval, growing socioeconomic disparities, and increasing distrust, Dr. Brown hasn’t lost the power of her hope. She sees so much goodness and shared humanity in the world.
“Goodness is there when someone gives a blood transfusion or gets a blood transfusion,” she said. “It reminds me that we’re still all globally connected because there’s no Black blood or White blood or Hispanic blood or Asian blood. All blood is the same.”
Dr. Brown’s goal as a humanist is to make a difference in someone’s life one person at a time.
“Can I make their life just a little bit better? Can I smile? Can I speak? Can I ask somebody how they’re doing?” asked Dr. Brown. “I see people all the time asking for money on every corner with signs. And I often give money. And so I see a guy, and he says, ‘Be a human. I’ve fallen on hard times.’ And I looked at that sign and I said, ‘Gina Brown, the man is saying, Be a human. I’ve fallen on hard times.’ And I opened up my wallet, and I gave him more than I would normally give anyone. And he said, ‘Thank you. God bless you.’ I paid it forward because this is what it’s all about.”
The power of the possible through collaboration
Dr. Bernardine Lacey, a trailblazing nursing leader, advocate, researcher, educator, and mentor, was a great hero of Dr. Brown’s. She founded Western Michigan University’s School of Nursing and was recognized as a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing in 2014. Dr. Lacey first introduced Dr. Brown to fellow National Humanism in Medicine honoree Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx.
Dr. Brown recalled, “Dr. Lacey said that we needed to meet. That we were both doing phenomenal things. Both of us trying to heal the world. She wanted the two of us to do a project together. NYU was doing some phenomenal things. Howard was doing some phenomenal things. She knew we could be even stronger together.”
That introduction would prove transformative for Dr. Brown and Dr. Sullivan-Marx. Together, they formed a research and educational partnership with their two nursing schools focused on health equity.
“That coming together of Howard and NYU has just been a phenomenal project. It’s really like having the piano keyboard of white and black playing a beautiful melody together. We’re making Mozart and Beethoven type of work. We’re helping bring about diversity. Diversity is what makes the world go around. It makes the world a better place alongside globalization and humanism,” Dr. Brown said.
“It’s the right thing to do”
Dr. Brown is a gracious leader who sees every opportunity as a time for serving others. “My thing is, ‘How do I continue to try to bless others? What else can I do to try to help somebody else?’ Every day I tell people the softest pillow at night is a clear conscience,” she said.
Dr. Brown recalled her palpable excitement when she received the call from Gold Foundation President and CEO Dr. Richard Levin about her 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal.
“I’m beyond humbled. I fell on the floor because so many times you don’t do things for accolades. You just do them because it’s the right thing to do,” Dr. Brown explained. “So, I never thought about awards when going to Tanzania or Ghana, getting off a plane by myself and trying to build a nursing program, or sleeping in a bed with one sheet in the Philippines because I’m trying to evaluate a nursing school.”
“I was trying my hardest to make somebody else’s life better.”
Learn about the other three 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Richard I. Levin, the Honorable Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx. All were celebrated at the 2023 Annual Gala in New York City.