The US Department of Veteran Affairs is a cabinet level executive branch of the federal government charged with integrating life-long healthcare services to eligible military veterans. 

Each year the VA presents the Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Nursing and Advancement of Nursing Programs to only six individuals throughout the country who have been nominated by their colleagues for outstanding service to our veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have demonstrated excellence and the highest level of dedication to their profession. Chosen from individual medical centers, the nominees go through a rigorous review before the final selection is made. Kanab resident Maria VanHart RN, CEN was nominated and presented with the award on May 12. 

William Caron, VASNHS CEO said, “In line with VA’s vision of quality care and service, Maria VanHart works tirelessly as a Registered Nurse in our Emergency Department to ensure our team and the Veterans who depend upon us for care have the very best experience. We are so proud of her and of all our nurses who have performed with selfless dedication during this pandemic.”

One example of her excellence in nursing came as she had just finished a shift at the VA hospital in Las Vegas and was driving home to Kanab. On a scorching 105-degree afternoon on June 20, 2020, an SUV traveling with 10 passengers blew a tire and rolled several times, throwing several passengers from the vehicle and trapping others inside. Not 30 minutes after her long commute started, she came upon the single vehicle accident, and while some onlookers stopped to assist, it was clear none of them were trained to manage the situation.

VanHart assessed the situation and like habit, she stated, “I did what I was trained to do, I don’t panic  …  just immediately did what needed to be done.” On top of the many injured passengers, there was a language barrier as she realized the family had traveled to the United States from Syria to attend a wedding. Of the 10 passengers only a 10-year boy could speak English, and served as a translator as Ms. VanHart got to work. The boy pointed out where the passengers were, VanHart said, “her immediate concern was for the mother who had been thrown from the vehicle and sat motionless, 10-feet from the vehicle, and the boy’s brother who was trapped inside, not breathing and based on his condition, I could tell he was dead.”

There was an infant girl who appeared to be fine, and this is where the experience, training and skills are so valuable. While bystanders told her the infant was fine, VanHart did a quick assessment.

“When I did my assessment on her, I could see she had facial bruising, agonal breathing, and one of her pupils was blown, so I knew she had a head injury. She may have been having some seizure activity because her eyes were fluttering. She and the mother needed to be flown to a hospital immediately.”

After helicopters from University Medical Center were loaded with the patients and VanHart briefed the medical team, she finally took a step back and analyzed what happened. After her own long shift at the VA hospital in Las Vegas, she had been on the scene for two hours in 105-degree heat and was exhausted. “I was dehydrated and physically shaky afterwards. I sat down, drank some water and called my friends for reassurance.”  

Ms. VanHart is a Registered Nurse (RN), she holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as well as holding numerous certifications: Firefighter I and II, Emergency Medical Services RN, Trauma Nurse Core Course, Emergency Nursing Pediatric, Neonatal Resuscitation Program, and Prehospital Trauma Life Support. She is trained in wild land fire, rappelling, back country rescue, swift water, ice water and under water rescue, while also holding RN licenses in Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Utah, Nevada, California, and Hawaii. 

In addition to an incredible pedigree of education, she is a breast-cancer survivor, and also lost most of her family to illness at a young age. 

Healthcare has always played a big role in her life. Vanhart has a unique philosophy when it comes to her work: 

“At the end of the day, there are two things that let me know if I have done my job that day. One is: ‘what was my patient-to-hug ratio?’ and the other: ‘had my mother been the last person I had cared for, would I have done anything differently?’ Everyone out there is a someone’s patient or child and they all deserve to be cared as if they were my own.”

Congratulations to Ms. VanHart on receiving this prestigious award for her dedicated service in the many communities she has served in.