Cara Lunsford is the VP of Community at Nurse.com, fostering a community where nurses can find peer support, allies, professional opportunities, resources, and education. She’s also the host of Nurse.com’s NurseDot Podcast and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, highlighting a variety of voices within the nursing industry while also speaking to her personal experiences as an RN and founder of HOLLIBLU, a social networking app exclusively for nurses (acquired by Nurse.com in 2022).
The series highlights healthcare leaders who are prominent figures in their organizations and are making transformational impacts in nursing.
Meet Cara Lunsford, RN, CPHON, VP of Community at Nurse.com.
Talk about your role in nursing.
Beginning my career in pediatric oncology, I witnessed firsthand the effects such a stressful job can have on a nurse. I observed my peers experience burnout and abuse on a daily basis. I heard their stories of adversity, trauma, and hope and joy. With my fellow nurses at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), we started the first Supportive Care Committee to ensure nurses had an environment available to help cope with job stress. However, there remained a greater need for resources like this committee at every hospital and nurses throughout healthcare sectors to improve retention and recruiting.
Realizing there was a broader need for a safe and supportive community and the potential technology had to solve this issue, I had the idea to found HOLLIBLU, the first social media network for nurses. The app was designed to provide peer support, professional advice, and connections with other nurses. In 2022, HOLLIBLU was acquired by Nurse.com, where I was brought on as vice president of community to oversee the Nurse.com app platform.
To continue amplifying voices within the nursing community, we launched the NurseDot Podcast late last year. I sit down with my nursing peers to discuss their stories, industry trends, and professional growth advice.
How long have you worked in the nursing field?
I have been in nursing for over 15 years, working in the acute setting as a pediatric oncology, home health, and home infusion nurse. Throughout the past five years, I have used my clinical knowledge as a registered nurse (RN) to take on an entrepreneurial role delivering technology solutions to my fellow nurses to help with everyday challenges. Most recently, I have been using my voice and platform in the nursing space to elevate other nurses, fostering a supportive community for nurses of all specialties and settings.
Why did you become a nurse?
I started my career as a nurse in pediatric oncology back in 2008 at CHLA. Before that, I worked as an American Sign Language interpreter at Cal State Northridge, where I discovered my interest in oncology. For two consecutive semesters, I interpreted the Biology of Cancer class, and as I was listening and interpreting, I became more interested in oncology and the nursing profession in general. Ultimately, I was so intrigued that I was motivated to embark on a career in nursing. From there, I went to Los Angeles County College of Nursing and Allied Health, where I received an Associate of Science degree and became an RN.
What are the most important attributes of today’s nursing leaders?
Successful nurses and nursing leaders are empathetic, drawing from personal experiences and truly listening to others from different backgrounds. Having navigated the healthcare system as a queer family put me in the patient’s shoes rather than the clinician’s, with which I was very familiar. My wife and I had a child with two HIV+ gay men, and we all continue to co-parent together. To have our son, we had to meet with multiple IVF clinics and experienced professionals who were either unfamiliar with our family situation or had stigmas around HIV and LGBTQIA+ healthcare issues. I understand what it is like to be rejected from care because of the stigma around your sexuality and hurtful preconceived notions. As a queer nurse, it’s important for me to share my experiences with patients and fellow nurses to create a better care environment for everyone and foster the best possible results for all patients, regardless of background.
With this experience as a patient, I can relate to the struggles my patients are going through. Similarly, as a nursing leader, I understand the struggles of my peers. This knowledge allowed me to create an app to best support nurses and care for their needs. To care for patients you do not know, sometimes nurses must put their own mental health and personal life on the back burner, requiring nurses to be extremely caring and understanding. While this means caring for patients of all backgrounds, it also means putting yourself in their shoes.
What does being a nursing leader mean to you, and what are you most proud of?
It’s important to acknowledge that nurse leadership brings a tremendous amount of responsibility. Nurses have faced unprecedented challenges in the past few years, resulting in a staffing crisis. The solutions nurses seek will require that people across healthcare get aligned on the reasons behind this crisis. Nurse leaders are being called to use their voices and platforms to ensure these messages reach the decision-makers within this industry. I had spent most of my career being the squeaky wheel, speaking up even when it was unpopular. I have taken huge personal and professional risks to create a safe space for nurses and bring awareness to their challenges. But with risk came great reward. Nurse.com believed in my mission and vision. In March 2022, they acquired my company, brought our small but mighty team into the Nurse.com family, and are helping us to continue our mission of providing a vibrant community where nurses thrive.
Tell us about your career path and how you ascended to that role.
After years of nursing and founding HOLLIBLU, I was drawn to Nurse.com given its 30+ year legacy. The biggest thing that pushed me to collaborate with the company was its mission, which completely aligned with mine. Nurse.com aims to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of society and those who care for them. As a nurse, this resonated with me deeply. It is a company I wanted to associate myself with and help build toward this mission by including the app I was so passionate about creating.
What is the most significant challenge facing nursing today?
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the broader public became abruptly aware of nurses’ important role in the healthcare system and their daily challenges. In this post-pandemic world, with severe nursing shortages putting increased pressure on healthcare staff, nurse burnout, and professional stress are incredibly high, not to mention the grief and trauma that comes from caring for patients.
As a nursing leader, how are you working to overcome this challenge?
Nurses need resources and support to equip them with the skills to deliver better care. The last few years have proven that nursing is one of our society’s most demanding and crucial jobs, so we must do something about it. It is vital to provide nurses with adequate resources and a supportive community to deal with burnout and improve their mental health. Nurses need accessible and effective training to help them advance in their careers and targeted job postings to help them find the best roles that fit their interests and experience. At Nurse.com, we put nurses’ needs first, providing them with a community of peers, reading materials, continuing education courses, and the ability to take control of their career paths.
What nursing leader inspires you the most and why?
A few nurse leaders come to mind, but I would start with Rebecca Love. Rebecca has been working to empower and elevate the nurse profession, whether it’s through grassroots initiatives, like founding the non-profit SONSIEL (Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Educators, and Leaders) or giving TedTalks about how nurses can drive healthcare innovation. Most recently, Rebecca has set her sights on a significant issue, the insurance reimbursement of nursing services. The Commission for Nurse Reimbursement explores the history of how the rates of nursing services were once set by the nurses themselves and how changes made over 100 years ago has resulted in nurses now being a cost instead of a benefit to hospitals. I just interviewed her on the NurseDot Podcast, and you can listen to that episode here.
What inspirational message would you like to share with the next generation of nurses?
Nursing is a marathon and not a sprint. If you want to work in this profession for decades, it is important to prioritize your personal needs, practice professional boundaries, and know when to say “no” or “not right now.” Remember that you are human first. Practicing awareness will help you identify when it’s time to make a change, so don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone and try something new.