Shirley Nathan-Pulliam

As a state senator and delegate, the School of Nursing alumna championed access to health care for all Marylanders.

Leading up to UMB’s commencement on May 18, The Elm will feature stories on the ceremony’s student speaker and honorees. For more information, go to UMB’s Commencement 2023 website. Read about all the honorees at this link.

Former Maryland state Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, MAS, BSN ’80, RN, FAAN, does not remember Yolanda Ogbolu reaching out to her when she was a single mother seeking help to take her nursing board exam. But Ogbolu, now an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON), remembers the impact Nathan-Pulliam had on her life.

Ogbolu was a single mother who had to choose between paying her rent or paying the exam fee. She paid her rent, missing the Maryland exam. She then reached out to the governor, delegates, and senators for help. Nathan-Pulliam was the only one who responded. The legislator arranged for her to take the exam in Delaware.

Later, Ogbolu became a legislative intern with the senator.

“As I read through the piles of letters and listened to phone calls that she receives daily, I realized why remembering me would be difficult. The senator has helped 10,000 Yolandas,” said Ogbolu, PhD ’11, MS ’05, BSN ’04, CRNP-Neonatal, FNAP, FAAN, who now serves as chair of the Social Determinants of Health Taskforce of Baltimore City, the first legislatively mandated committee of its kind in the nation and a product of Nathan-Pulliam’s efforts to address health disparities.           

During her five-year tenure in the state Senate and 20 years in the House of Delegates, Nathan-Pulliam advanced numerous health policy initiatives, worked to reduce health care disparities and inequalities, and strived to strengthen the health care delivery system. She is an alumna of UMSON, which named her an inaugural Visionary Pioneer in 2014 and earlier this year honored her contributions to nursing, education, and public health by adding her name to the façade of the school’s expanded footprint along Lombard Street.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore also will honor Nathan-Pulliam this year by awarding her an Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree at its commencement May 18, recognizing her work for 40 years as a political and community activist at the local, state, and federal levels.

“Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam has had a profound impact on health care in the Maryland region. Keenly aware of problems with access and quality of care, she served as a leading advocate for improved health care for the underserved and for addressing health care disparities,” said Jane M. Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Bill and Joanne Conway Dean of the School of Nursing. “There is virtually no area of health care policy and legislation that was not touched by her during her 25-year tenure. She has substantially impacted the lives of thousands of individuals, particularly underserved populations.”

Nathan-Pulliam, who represented parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, said her time at UMSON was pivotal to her work as a legislator.

“I was always prepared to use the nursing process to solve problems that came before me,” she said.

Throughout her career, Nathan-Pulliam has maintained her license as a registered nurse in Maryland. She worked as a quality assurance coordinator, a head nurse, and team leader in hospitals in the Baltimore area, and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, JD, appointed her the social service commissioner in 1990.

In 1994, Nathan-Pulliam, who was born in Jamaica, became the first Caribbean-born person and the first African-Caribbean registered nurse elected to the Maryland General Assembly. She dedicated her legislative career to ensuring that all Marylanders have access to health care.

During her first year in office, she created a $2.6 million breast cancer diagnosis and treatment program for low-income women. Her initiatives also included funding for an oral cancer mortality reduction program and treatment for co-occurring disorders of substance abuse and mental illness.

She sponsored the legislation that led to the creation of the Healthcare Disparities Prevention Act and the establishment of the Maryland Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. Her work on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin established six new federal offices on minority health.

Concerned that one element of the underlying disparities in health care is the lack of cultural competence content in the formal education of health service professionals, Nathan-Pulliam led efforts to require academic institutions to include this focus. Her work extended to the quality of care in nursing homes, Medicaid utilization, and health care delivery and financing. She championed legislation for children, youth, and families; health care insurance and Medicaid; mental health; and health care workforce diversity.

She also has a reputation as a mentor to nurses and legislators alike.

“The senator has consistently leveraged her nursing education and knowledge and her roots in nursing practice to inform policy development. She has also engaged the nursing community through mentoring and sharing best practices for policy advocacy to inspire nurses and other health professionals to advocate for better health care,” Kirschling said. “There is no doubt that her impact on health equity policy will be sustained by the many individuals who she has inspired, encouraged, and guided.”

Maryland Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, JD, said she has benefited from Nathan-Pulliam’s mentorship.

“When I came to the Health and Government Operations Committee, I didn’t know my way, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Peña-Melnyk said. “But Shirley took her time to talk to me, to mentor me, and to give me an opportunity that many people wouldn’t do.”

Nathan-Pulliam retired in 2019 because of health issues. In her retirement letter, she said, “My journey, also as a mentor, will pave a path for others to follow.”

At the time of her retirement announcement, Senate President Bill Ferguson, JD ’10, MAT, called her a mentor, a national leader on the issue of health disparities, and a true public servant.

Nathan-Pulliam has received more than 30 awards and honors during her career, including the Prime Minister of Jamaica Achievement Award, the Adventist Center for Health Disparities Blue Ribbon Award, the Caribbean American Heritage Marcus Garvey Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Award from the National Minority Quality Forum and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She has also been recognized with the Shirley Nathan-Pulliam Health Equity Lecture Series by the University of Maryland School of Public Health Center for Health Equity.

Nathan-Pulliam said she is proud of UMSON and its legacy.

“Nationally, we’ve done great, and our nurses are everywhere,” Nathan-Pulliam said.

Emily Chappell contributed to this story.

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