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Entrepreneurial Leadership Award

Alumnae named to Georgia Baptist College of Nursing’s Hall of Honor

Tift College graduate and registered nurse Kaye Burnham Smith, Georgia Baptist School of Nursing ’62, Tift ’64, knows from personal experience that when a person is sick, there’s no place like home. And thanks to the home health care business she helped establish, today nearly 1,500 terminally ill and incapacitated patients in central Georgia receive quality medical care in the comforts of their homes.

Smith and her business partner, LaMae Smith Williams, Georgia Baptist School of Nursing ’71, were presented with the Entrepreneurial Leadership Award for the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer during the College’s Centennial Celebration. Smith graduated from Georgia Baptist School of Nursing in 1962 before completing her degree at Tift.

“I was completely shocked,” Smith said of winning the award. “It’s a real honor.”

Smith and Williams’ names will be posted in the Nursing College’s new Hall of Honor for oustanding Georiga Baptist graduates. Smith said it’s “quite humbling” to be recognized in the company of the other Georgia Baptist graduates whose names appear on the Hall of Honor.

“When I heard about the award, I immediately thought of those two names,” said Brenda Duncan Nave, who nominated the women for the award. “Opening a new home health care agency is a lot of hard work. You have to be a really caring and innovative person to establish and build a home health agency.”

Nave, who graduated with Smith from Georgia Baptist School of Nursing in ’62, remembers when Smith first thought about opening her own home health care agency. She said she’s amazed at what Smith and Williams have done.

Nave said opening and maintaining a home health care agency involves a lot of “red tape,” including completing a certificate of need, meeting Medicare and Medicaid requirements and meeting continued legislative changes with regular surveys.

“You have to truly care to persevere through that. This is more than a job for these women,” she said of Smith and Williams.

Because of Smith and Williams’ dedication Three Rivers Home Health Services has come a long way since it opened its doors in the late 70s.

The idea to open a home health care agency was the result of Smith’s experience with her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Smyly Martin. Martin suffered a four-year bout with cancer, leaving her reliant on tube feedings for nutrition.

Smith, who was working as a nurse for the Dodge County Public Health Department, said her mother-in-law required almost constant care.

“But I knew I didn’t want to put her in a nursing home,” Smith said. “She was still mentally alert.”

Being a nurse, Smith decided to care for her mother-in-law in her home. In addition to her work in public health care, Smith had extensive clinical experience while she was still a student at Georgia Baptist School of Nursing. She completed three years of clinical work in order to get her diploma. This provided her with a good foundation inside and outside the classroom.

And while today many nursing colleges only require two years of clinical training for their degree programs, Georgia Baptists’ tradition of excellence continues today. Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer University is now the only nursing school in the South to require three years of clinical work.

Smith said her education at Georgia Baptist made her a good nurse. But it was the independent thinking skills she learned while exploring the liberal arts at Tift that helped her to be a good home health nurse. Smith explained in home health care, nurses don’t have the medical equipment at their fingertips they would have in a hospital, so they have to be innovative.

Smith said her mother-in-law often asked a question that led her to evaluate the direction she was taking in her career.

“She used to say to me, ‘What do other people do who are sick and don’t have relatives who are nurses to help them?'” Smith recalled.

The question lingered in Smith’s mind for a long time. By caring for her mother-in-law, she’d realized what a difference medical care at home makes.

“At home, patients feel more at ease and more in control,” Smith said.

Patients prefer to be in their own beds and to be near family and friends, she explained. And with home health care, they don’t have to follow the hospital staff’s set schedules. They can set their own meal times. Smith said something as simple as that can leave a patient much happier.

Smith decided home health care should be available to more patients. So in 1979, she partnered with fellow nursing school graduate LaMae Smith Williams, the registered nurse who had helped care for Smith’s mother-in-law during the final four months of her illness. The two women opened Three Rivers Home Health Services in a small office in Eastman that year.

Smith’s husband, Hal M. Smith, Jr., serves as the executive director of the business. He handles financial and administrative matters.

At the time of the company’s inception, it serviced seven Georgia counties: Bleckley, Dodge, Laurens, Pulaski, Telfair, Wheeler, and Wilcox. Smith said she had no idea the great need there was for home health care in central Georgia.

“We thought we were going to be working part-time,” Smith recalled with a laugh.

Within months, the two women were working 60 hour weeks.

And the demand for home health care only grew. Three Rivers opened a second office in 1981 in Dublin. And by 1982, Smith said they’d outgrown their office in Eastman and had to move to a larger space.

Three Rivers Home Health Serives now has seven offices and services 18 counties. The company has evolved from providing only skilled nursing to providing complete home health services, including physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and educational services. Three Rivers now has 120 employees who make 95,000 patient visits annually.

Smith said the company’s growth really hits her at the Three Rivers’ annual Christmas parties. “When I stand up in front of about 120 employees at the party, I think “Wow”.

She is proud that Three Rivers Home Health, which has achieved the prestigious accreditation of The Join Commission of Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, is able to help so many people. And she’s proud to have won the Entrepreneurial Leadership Award for her work at Three Rivers.

The company’s mission is simple, Smith said. “We provide quality to care to people who need it.”

But it’s more than quality care Smith and her employees provide. They provide their patients with a better quality of life.

Published in TifToday-Fall 2003

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