Kathryn Funk is making a difference — at scale.
As one of the top experts of stroke patient care in Virginia, she’s working to make prevention, treatment, and recovery accessible to everyone throughout her state.
Through the Paul Coverdell National Acute Stroke Program, Kathryn and her team at the Virginia Department of Health received a $1.8 million grant that they are using to transform the state’s approach to stroke patient care and provide high-quality treatment for everyone.
“In Virginia, only a little over half of our hospitals are certified to take care of stroke patients,” she says. “That means that there’s whole sections of our state that if you or your family member were having a stroke, you couldn’t get the care that you deserved because those hospitals are not prepared to take care of you.”
Stroke is one of the leading causes of death in the United States and one of the top causes of serious long-term disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government body that also runs the Coverdell Program. With the three-year program, Kathryn has made it her mission to increase awareness and decrease the risk of death or disability for Virginians everywhere.
But Kathryn wasn’t always at the forefront of patient care. It took a brave journey for her to build the experience, education, and confidence to impact lives statewide.
Starting strong and ending stronger
Kathryn didn’t decide to pursue nursing until her 40s. Before that, she and her husband, Craig, owned and operated a family business for many years. But Kathryn knew she wanted to accomplish more in her career — to effect change in the world. So, about 15 years ago, she enrolled in her first nursing program en route to becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
She advanced in her practice and her education — first with her LPN to registered nurse (RN) bridge, then with a bachelor’s degree — and eventually decided to pursue graduate-level education. But she wanted to do it right, in a way that made sense for her skills and preparation. Early in her nurse practitioner (NP) education at Maryville, she heeded the results of a skills and strengths assessment to pursue a different master’s degree in nursing leadership.
“I took the test, and it really showed me that I was not prepared at that moment to be a nurse practitioner, and that perhaps my interests lie in different areas,” Kathryn says. “And then I returned when I felt that I was in a position where I was ready to get my nurse practitioner.”
For the next phase in her career, Kathryn chose to earn her online Post-Master’s Nurse Practitioner Certificate in Adult-Gerontology Acute Care from Maryville. She says the university appealed to her because of its innovative approach in utilizing multiple methods of learning — not just reading and writing course materials.
“Maryville offered a variety of learning methods,” she says. “You do webinars, you do PowerPoints, there’s groups that you can work with, people you interact with. I found it a much more interactive online experience.”
While at Maryville, Kathryn was able to study nursing in an environment that challenged her to become the best nurse she could be while also working around her other commitments.
“I worked full time the entire time,” she says. “So even as a nurse practitioner student, I worked two jobs. Still, I work full time for the Department of Health and I work part time for the Joint Commission, and I was able to keep those up while still going to Maryville.”
In addition to the flexibility, Kathryn says she valued the faculty’s commitment to student success and the curriculum’s focus on group work, which she says prepared her for collaboration on high-profile projects in the real world.
“You don’t operate in a silo,” she says. “If you don’t help your coworkers and if your coworkers don’t help you, you don’t get through the day. You don’t know everything. There are things others know — you need to rely on your coworkers. You need to learn how to work together.”
Pivoting to make a broader impact
For much of her career, Kathryn was a practicing nurse, a role she excelled at and enjoyed. She says she loved working directly with individual patients and helping them through potentially difficult medical emergencies.
“I was at a hospital that did specialized care where we would actually go up inside people’s brains and pull blood clots out, or if they had an aneurysm that burst, we would repair it,” she says. “Or if people had brain bleeds, we would take care of them.”
But when she was presented with the opportunity to work as a leading expert on stroke patient care with a $1.8 million grant with the Department of Health, she saw the chance to make a difference for hundreds of thousands — or maybe millions — of Virginians. Even though she loved practicing as a nurse, the prospect was too important to turn down.
“We were one of 13 states that got this grant,” she says. “When you have a three-year grant for $1.8 million, you don’t walk away from the work that needs to be done.”
Now, Kathryn has the capacity and reach to use her years of experience and her extensive nursing education to improve outlooks throughout her state. She’s working to make access to high-quality stroke care universal in rural and metropolitan areas, collect troves of data to add to the body of research on stroke care and prevention, and building a statewide registry of data that will be freely available to hospitals and clinics throughout Virginia, just to name a few things.
“There’s no other state that has done that,” she says.
Finishing the job — and looking toward the future
Kathryn recognizes the importance of the work she’s doing, and she’s passionate about making sure she completes the job.
“We’ve got three years to make a change,” she says. “We’ve got three years to make a difference. And we’re one and a half years in.”
While Kathryn enjoys knowing she’s participating in truly important and life-changing work, there are aspects about serving patients as a nurse practitioner that she hopes to experience again.
“Truly I miss being a nurse practitioner,” she says. “I miss being in the hospital. I miss seeing patients. I miss sitting down with the families. I miss looking at my phone and being able to see images of a brain on my phone and immediately making decisions on how to take care of those patients, or talking about what medicines to give patients, or spending time with the families and the patients. I miss it. But I can go back.”
Whether her future holds a return to clinical practice or some new adventure in nursing, she knows she’s in for more changes for her career. She’s confident that wherever she goes, her experience and education will leave her prepared.
“The cool thing about being a nurse or a nurse practitioner is that we can work a lot of different jobs,” Kathryn says. “You know, we don’t have to work in the ED or in the ICU or on the floor as a hospitalist or in a doctor’s office or whatever. We have a lot of opportunities available.”
‘If you never start, you never finish’: Empowering nurses through education
Kathryn’s story shows the kind of profound impact nurses can have not just on individual patients and families, but on whole communities and large populations.
But change at any level starts with one brave decision, and Kathryn is a strong advocate for current and future nurses to prepare for the futures they want through education.
“If you never start, you never finish,” she says. “Take one class, one class at a time. Nobody says you have to take a full load. You can do one class at a time. … A year from now, if you don’t start, you’re still going to be where you are.”
If you’re ready to see how Maryville Online can help you be brave and pursue your educational and professional goals, we’re here for you. Check out our online bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees, or schedule a call with an advisor today.