When an unexpected family tragedy occurred in the same field she’d studied for years, one nurse shifted her clinical focus to draw attention to a growing issue that’s gone largely unrecognized.
Lora Sparkman, RN, BSN, MHA, has been a nurse for 37 years and a member of Relias’ team for the past five. She currently leads as a strategy and clinical expert in patient safety/risk reduction, high reliability, and quality improvement in acute care.
Most notably, she has worked to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity across the country using a transformative training software specifically designed for healthcare.
Recently, Lora was featured in a new episode of Caring With Courage: Extraordinary stories of nurses, a mini-documentary online series presented by the International Council of Nurses and produced by BBC StoryWorks Commercial Productions, highlighting the scope of the nursing profession.
During a candid Q&A, Lora shared additional insights on what led her to nursing and how it has changed her life in ways she never expected.
Q: How did you begin your nursing career?
A: I went into nursing in a very pragmatic sort of way. I enjoyed taking care of people and putting knowledge to use and being present and being active, and I enjoyed being part of a team.
I began working on a medical/surgical floor, and then moved to a cardiac intensive care unit. For me, I knew going into nursing school that I was interested in eventually transitioning to the business side of the healthcare industry.
Q: Was the nursing profession what you thought it would be?
A: In nursing school, your education and training can only prepare you for the clinical aspect of your role — the symptoms, the protocols, the next steps, etc. As a practicing nurse, you quickly understand how much impact you can have on a patient’s life, especially during their most vulnerable moments. I don’t know if anything can really prepare a nurse for the gravity of that feeling — the responsibility of nursing takes on a whole new meaning.
Nursing has grown a great deal since I first became a nurse. There are so many opportunities for nurses today — from research to front-line patient care, to medical sales, and so on. There’s truly something for everyone who’s passionate about the nursing profession — that’s the beauty of how nursing has evolved.
Q: When did you become interested in moving beyond the bedside?
A: After spending almost a decade providing clinical care, I accepted an opportunity to better understand the payor side of healthcare. The role was a better fit for raising a family, with a more convenient schedule.
I learned a different aspect about how healthcare is paid for, and it really gave me that foundational business acumen to see so many facets of the industry — about what a good model looks like and what a poor model looks like.
And then I just got impassioned about standardizing evidence-based care models. On the floor, my day-to-day was focusing on a handful of patients at a time — and now, I was able to assess patient populations and see the variation in how healthcare was being delivered. It was a profound turning point for me and a realization/challenge that’s continued to drive me forward in my career — even today.
Q: How do you know when you’re ready for the next project in your career?
A: My personality type needs to keep trying new things. I’ve always been motivated to develop new things, and once I have it, I need to move on to something else to keep growing and moving forward. I’m driven by understanding the problem, delving into the discovery, assessing what’s possible, building something, implementing the practice, and finally the dissemination.
Q: You’ve recently brought attention to maternal mental health and related standards of care. What led you here?
A: For the last decade of my career, I’ve led efforts to reduce our nation’s maternal mortality crisis — an issue many people are surprised to learn is unfortunately more common in the U.S. than other parts of the world. In fact, we’re more than double the rate of 10 other high-income countries, according to a 2020 report from The Commonwealth Fund.
Historically, the data from the CDC, CMS, etc., has solely focused on addressing the physiological reasons contributing to maternal mortality — obstetric hemorrhages, preeclampsia, and cardiovascular diseases, for example. What we’ve missed, and have only started to identify, is how mental and behavioral health impact the maternal mortality crisis. And for me, this realization hit very close to home.
In 2020, I lost my niece, Brianne, to complications from postpartum depression. As a nurse, you do have that moment of, “How did her suffering go unnoticed,” and then, driven by my background in quality improvement I wanted to know, “What action is being taken to address this?”
This is when I realized how little attention maternal mental health had really been given. I knew I had to raise awareness to give mothers the support they so desperately need and sincerely deserve.
Q: What advice would you give to future nurses?
A: My advice to future nurses is simply this: “Always advocate for your patients first and foremost.” If you advocate for your patient, you can be fulfilled in your role as a nursing professional and in your heart, as you are making a positive difference for someone who is vulnerable and relies on you to keep them safe.
And don’t be afraid to grow — to take new chances, new opportunities. Keeping an open mind can help progress you forward in your career. You can’t predict what will change you, what will inspire you. Take care of yourself, just as you take care of your patients.
With the knowledge that maternal mental health needs more attention, Sparkman took the courageous step of telling her personal story about the loss of her niece Brianne to mental illness after childbirth. Her segment, Motherhood and Mental Health in the BBC’s Caring with Courage StoryWorks series, raises awareness about spotting the signs, breaking the silence, and caring for new mothers.
She continues to use her platform to be proactive and make an impact and was named one of the Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare Software in 2022 by The Healthcare Technology Report.
Awareness and education are crucial for nurses, providers, and the public to improve maternal health outcomes. For more information on maternal mortality, social determinants, and mental health, read this white paper.