By STEPHANIE A. JAMES
No words can describe the feeling that Sylvia Trent-Adams had when she received the news that she was being promoted to a top national healthcare position.
“I was speechless. I was in shock all afternoon. I was pacing in my office,” said Trent-Adams, a 1983 Appomattox County High School graduate of her reaction to being informed she was selected to fill the position.
The Concord native and Maryland resident was recently appointed as chief nursing officer – a leadership position with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps where she serves as advisor to the Office of the Surgeon General.
In addition, she advises the Department of Health and Human Services on the retention, deployment, recruitment, assignment, and career development of nurse professionals.
The promotion is the most recent highlight of her 22-year career with the Corps, which is an organization that includes a group of nearly 7,000 public health professionals dedicated to helping the underserved.
Last month, she was recognized at a ceremony in honor of her promotion as chief nursing officer.
After going through a competitive interview process, a former Army nurse Rear Admiral Trent-Adams was surprised when she received the news that she would be filling the position to replace her predecessor Kerry Nesseler.
She said that when she received the call from the surgeon general, she initially thought he was going to tell her that she was not chosen for the position or that there was another interview.
But the news was quite the contrary.
She said that she knew that she was up against other qualified and intelligent people.
“I knew a lot of my colleagues were competitive candidates,” said the 48-year-old mother of two.
After she received the news, she told her family, including her husband Dennis, her mother Alease, and brother Jerry Trent Jr., as well as her daughters Nadia and Alexia.
They were all excited for her.
“My brother was bouncing off of the walls,” recalled Trent-Adams.
Her mother, Alease Trent, said that she taught her daughter to always work for what she wants and not to expect opportunities to be handed to her.
When she was younger, her mother encouraged her to not be an underachiever.
“There is no way you are going to be an underachiever,” Trent-Adams recalled her mother stating. “While I was in middle school, she told me you are going to college.”
In November, Trent-Adams was selected for the position of chief nursing officer.
She is also the deputy associate administrator in the HIV/AIDS Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration.
As deputy associate administrator, she helps manage the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which was named after the late Ryan White, a teenager who was discriminated against in the 1980s after he contracted AIDS as a result of receiving tainted blood during a medical procedure.
The $2.3 billion program finances medical care, referrals and support services for uninsured and underserved HIV patients as well as training for medical officials.
As a nurse, she has encountered a variety of different people from all walks of life.
“I have taken care of generals, senators, and homeless people,” she said.
She was encouraged to go into the field of nursing early on.
While still in high school, a counselor encouraged her to become an Army nurse.
With a heart to help people, Trent-Adams set out to pursue a career in nursing.
On an ROTC scholarship, she went to Hampton University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Subsequent to earning her undergraduate degree, she went on to earn a Master of Science in Nursing and Health Policy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
In her early career working in the oncology unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, she witnessed patients dying everyday.
She said that the experience made such an impression on her. She learned to appreciate life and live well.
“That experience at Walter Reed set the stage for my entire career. It taught me to treat people with dignity and respect,” she said.
During her career, she was a cancer research nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
A patient told her about opportunities with USPHS Commission Corps. She started her career with the Corps in 1992.
In addition to holding her current position as chief nursing officer, other nursing roles that Trent-Adams has held include senior advisor in the HIV/AIDS Bureau, senior program management officer, as well as branch chief and senior nurse consultant.
Reflecting on her career, she remembers different experiences that served as life lessons for her.
“I have had very interesting assignments in my career. They have not always been pleasant, but I have learned from them,” she said.
Those interesting moments in her nursing career included witnessing the ugly side of medical care and discrimination against patients.
She recalled an incident in the 1980s where a man who was infected with HIV was treated poorly. Trent-Adams recalled a hospital employee that slid a tray of food across the floor to the feverish bed-ridden man instead of handing the tray to him.
“No one deserves to be treated like that,” she said.
Another incident of unfair treatment she witnessed was a time when hospital employees refused to treat a homeless man because he had an unpleasant odor.
What staff did not know, Trent-Adams said, was his back-story. The man was a veteran, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and experienced a psychotic episode. He was living on the street.
Once he was bathed and stabilized in the hospital, she said that he was fine.
It was those experiences that stuck with her to this day.
During her career, she has won a variety of awards, which includes the Surgeon General Medal for Excellent Service.
Looking at her career, Trent-Adams said that she is blessed.
“I really enjoy what I do. It is a wonderful career,” said Trent-Adams.
Along with her successful career, Trent-Adams leads an active life outside her regular job. She serves as chair of the Nursing Professional Advisory Committee. She also mentors public health service officers, nursing students, and other health care professionals within the federal government.