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Cizik CNOs

DNP students step up as chief nursing officers

Dr. Jackie Ward and Julie Balluck
Dr. Jackie Ward and Julie Balluck

Progressing to executive-level leadership roles increasingly means earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. A growing number of chief nursing officers (CNOs) in Texas and beyond have chosen Cizik School of Nursing at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston to broaden their understanding of health care systems.

Jackie Ward, DNP, RN, NE-BC, a 2019 DNP graduate, and current DNP student Julie Balluck, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, are using what they learned at Cizik School of Nursing to advance nursing and health care quality as CNOs at their respective hospitals.

“The DNP is definitely needed if you want to move into a CNO role or be considered, especially in a metro area,” said Balluck, who is on track to earn her DNP in May of 2022. “It’s almost like a minimum requirement.”

 A native of Canada, Balluck earned her Texas nursing license for a summer travel nurse assignment while still working on her BSN from Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. She returned after graduation “with $500 and a futon.”  

“The American dream is real if you get the education and want to put the work into it,” Balluck said. 

Balluck advanced through various positions at Texas Health Presbyterian – Dallas over the course of two decades, working her way up from a recovery room staff nurse to associate CNO. Along the way, she earned her MSN from The University of Texas at Arlington. In February 2020, she moved to the 330-bed Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford as its new CNO. 

While Balluck’s path to nursing leadership began some 2,500 miles to the northeast, Ward’s grew out of strong local ties. Effective January 1, 2021, she became CNO at Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH), where her mother, Marilyn Lacey, worked for 36 years as a unit clerk. She knew from a young age that she wanted to work in health care. 

“I started out thinking I wanted to be a pediatrician,” Dr. Ward said. “I love the art and science of nursing and thought it would be a better fit for me.” 

Dr. Ward has worked her entire career at TCH, beginning in 1993 as an oncology nurse with an associate degree from Houston Community College. Her career advanced along with her education as she earned her BSN from Texas Tech University and her MSN from Loyola University. She was promoted from vice president of nursing to associate CNO in 2018 while working on her DNP at Cizik School of Nursing. 

Her tenure at TCH overlapped with her mother’s. Dr. Ward enjoyed seeing her mom in the hallways, carpooling, and occasionally borrowing lunch money from her. Her mother retired eight years ago. 

Aside from the family legacy, Dr. Ward is part of another well-established tradition at TCH – earning a DNP from the nearby Cizik School of Nursing.

“We’ve taken UT by storm!” said Dr. Ward, who counted 11 co-workers among her graduating class. Dozens more have earned or are working towards their DNPs from the nursing school and hold director and executive nursing leadership positions at the hospital. “Our organization supports higher learning. We support nurses going back to school. We support them financially, and we support them with flexibility and time so that they can have a balanced life.” 

Proximity isn’t the only reason so many TCH nurses choose Cizik School of Nursing’s DNP program, which is ranked No. 1 in Texas by U.S. News and World Report. The program’s reputation, curriculum, and combined on-line and in-person coursework attract students near and far. 

“Success as an executive in today’s complex, fast-paced, and often high-stakes world of health care requires extensive knowledge and expertise, which our Nurse Executive DNP Program provides,” said Professor Beth Ulrich, EdD, RN, FACHE, FAONL, FANN. “We are extremely proud of our graduates who are leading health care organizations throughout Texas and beyond.” 

Balluck found working with diverse groups one advantage of the program. While she focused on the nurse executive track, she noted the DNP program’s group projects enabled her to work with students who are nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. 

The importance of collaboration – especially within the C-suite – is the most important thing Balluck learned. 

“It can’t be all nursing, nursing, nursing. You need to build a business case for any program you want to deploy,” she said. “It helps you see the CEO’s perspective versus the CFO’s perspective, for example.” 

Ward agrees that learning to elevate nursing as an interprofessional member of a leadership team will be critical to health care quality improvement going forward. 

“We need to be in a position to lead quality – not just applying quality improvement programs, but creating them,” Ward said. “That’s what a Cizik School of Nursing DNP graduate is prepared to do.”

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