You can hear Florence, South Carolina – where she grew up – in Elizabeth “Daleen” Penoyer’s voice as she professes amazement that anyone would want to interview her for an article.
Finally, she consents. And then after the answers to questions come trickling out, you begin to understand how someone who, at first, dreamt of becoming a concert pianist and who graduated from high school at age 16, who seems driven, not by ambition, but by the kind of curiosity that makes children exclaim, “Cool!,” how that person ends up with half the alphabet behind her name in the form of various degrees and in charge of the Center for Nursing Research and Advanced Nursing Practice at Orlando Health.
“My parents were really smart. When I was 15 and in my senior year of high school, my mother, who was a nurse, told me I needed to get a real job, so I could pay my way in life,” Penoyer said with a laugh. She entered a vocational program her senior year in high school and later graduated from the local community college’s nursing program with an associate degree at age 18. “It’s funny, I wasn’t even at the legal drinking age, but I could administer narcotics. However, once I got into it (medicine), I was hooked and never ever doubted my career choice. It has given me more than I gave it. It has been a true blessing to serve patients and members of the health care team. Nothing but a true honor to me.”
Now, Dr. Penoyer is a PhD, RN, CCRP, FCNS, and FCCM. She has been a staff nurse, a university professor, a clinical nurse specialist, and a clinical nurse research scientist before taking on this role. Born and raised in the American South, she’s traveled to far corners of the world and spent some of the happiest years of her life as the Clinical Supervisor/Head Nurse of the medical surgical/ophthalmology unit at the King Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
In describing her current role – which she has had since 2010 – Penoyer’s voice turned serious. “We are trying to build the best evidence-guided nursing practice, so our patients are safe, and they have efficient and effective treatment, and therefore the best outcomes,” she said. “Seriously, that is our main goal. We want to contribute to excellence in the nursing practice that yields the best outcomes for our patients and their families.”
Dr. Penoyer is a research scientist and teacher at heart, so the role she is in is a natural fit. All 12 of Orlando Health’s adult hospital clinical nurse specialists report directly to her. She helps to mentor them and to put the best scientific evidence in practice. She also meets with nurses across all hospital sites to identify new research projects and guide them through the process from idea to approval to presentation.
She continues to conduct her own research projects. “Last week I spent time out on the nursing units, working with the care team on a study I am doing to understand their work with intravenous therapy,” she said. And finally, she is also on the Corporate Quality Team, leading the team charged with improving the quality of care for patients who develop sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to an infection and one of the deadliest challenges in hospitals.
“It is unusual to have such a robust research department in a community health care system,” said Penoyer. “The kind of activities we do are usually beyond the scope of a community hospital setting. They are usually reserved for places of academic affiliation like a major university hospital.”
In the past year, the Center for Nursing Research has helped guide approximately 30 different studies, said Dr. Penoyer. Those studies have included such topics as how to prevent non-ventilator-associated pneumonia in patients with increased teeth brushing and oral hygiene, improvements in handoff communication with patient engagement, and best clinical practices and products for patients undergoing intravenous therapy.
Having such a commitment to research helps drive a culture of curiosity and high achievement throughout the nursing ranks, and it plays to Penoyer’s love of teaching. Having been on the faculty of several universities, Dr. Penoyer called teaching her “Love Job.”
“I wanted to give advance practice nurses the solid knowledge and science behind what they are doing, so they are not just following a checklist,” she said.
Her own desire to understand the science behind the medicine she was learning was fueled by Dr. Lois Malasanos, the late former nursing dean in the college of nursing at the University of Florida. “She’s the one who really shaped and molded me. The way she taught was so clear and so interesting,” said Penoyer. “It was intellectually stimulating to me to understand how a body works and mechanisms behind disease when it doesn’t work. And I learned from her so well. Her passion for it just stimulated a need in me to know more. Dr. Malasanos had her doctorate in physiology and I wanted to be just like her.”
“Physiology is the foundation for almost everything we do. I just love it. Anybody who has been in my program can testify to that,” she said. And then a note of southern mischief crept into her voice. “I also talked about the benefits of fried chicken. All your body cells have a 2-layer membrane that has proteins, fat and water. You need cholesterol in your cells’ membranes to hold you together. So, I think it is absolutely appropriate that you have fried chicken so you can keep your cells together. So, you don’t land in a puddle somewhere. I stand by it. I have fun teaching. I laugh a lot.”