The Byrdine F. Lewis College of Nursing and Health Professions has named Susan Laird (B.S. ’97, M.S. ’01, D.N.P. ’20) and Betty Van Gerpen to its advisory board. Laird, a triple nursing alumna, is a health communications project director for the Office of Communication Science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Van Gerpen is the retired founder and president of Menders, Inc.
Laird translates CDC scientists’ information, facts and data into layperson’s terms to share with the public. During the past 15 months, she also served as the principal deputy director for the Joint Information Center for the CDC’s COVID-19 emergency response. As a result, she has a unique skill set, understanding science and clinical information and communicating clearly. Before becoming a nurse, Laird worked in advertising agencies and as a freelance writer.
Laird found her calling as a nurse when she was a volunteer rape crisis counselor at Grady Hospital’s emergency department. She was supposed to shadow an experienced counselor on her first shift, but no one else reported that day. So, on her own, Laird comforted and led nine patients through police reports and required paperwork before handing each over for medical treatment. Observing the nurses working in the ER inspired her to return to school for a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“People don’t always understand that nurses run hospitals. They work collaboratively with physicians and other interdisciplinary teams, but nurses are the ones delivering care to patients around the clock,” Laird said of nurses’ critical role in patient care and recovery.
Laird, a nontraditional-age nursing student and a single mother, chose Georgia State University's nursing school because she felt comfortable there while completing her core courses.
“Georgia State is known for diversity and inclusion. It was the place for an older student like me,” Laird said. She was even elected president of the Georgia State University Nursing Students (GSUNS) organization.
Laird worked in some of Atlanta’s largest and most challenging hospital emergency rooms earlier in her nursing career, including Grady Hospital and Crawford Long Hospital, now Emory Midtown Hospital.
Laird shares her leadership skills with the board of Georgia State University’s Alumni Association, the GSU Panther Athletic Club and now the Lewis College Board of Advisors.
Van Gerpen is the founder and retired president of Menders, Inc., the first home care agency for senior adults licensed in Georgia. Menders provides senior adults with individualized, short- and long-term care at home, retirement communities, or assisted living, where a registered nurse’s care isn’t needed.
A former Delta Airlines flight attendant, Van Gerpen is also a registered nurse and gerontologist who graduated from the Georgia Baptist Hospital diploma nursing program. She later earned a B.S.N. at Brenau University before coming to Georgia State for dual graduate degrees in adult education and gerontology. In 1985, she founded Mender’s, Inc.
Van Gerpen’s concept for Menders resonated with state and area hospital officials. The Piedmont Hospital board believed enough in her mission to care for senior adults at home to offer Menders classroom space for training nursing assistants. Georgia State nursing faculty, primarily the late Dr. Louise Duncan, led training classes and recruited other faculty to teach. Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) would become the company's backbone.
Caring for senior adults in their home environment is Van Gerpen’s life mission.
“We helped clients to be in control of their lives,” she said. “My goal was for senior adults to choose where they wanted to live and where they wanted to die.”
Operating care services within 10 miles of the nearest hospital and providing registered nurse backup to all CNAs is another hallmark of Menders.
“We never wanted a caregiver to feel alone,” Van Gerpen said.
After 36 years, Van Gerpen sold Menders to Lenbrook, where she had interned as a gerontology student. As a premier Life Plan Continuing Care Community, Lenbrook, located in Buckhead, had been a strong client community for the company, making the sale a natural fit.
Van Gerpen’s two children followed her into healthcare careers. Her daughter is a nurse in Birmingham, Ala., and her son is a physician with the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Huntsville, Ala.
Van Gerpen is active with other advisory boards, including the Alzheimer’s Association and Mercer University, which she is now leaving to join the Lewis College board.