From nursing school through now serving as senior director of regulatory management, Phyllis Simmons, BSN, RN, has dedicated her career to Our Lady of the Lake Health.
Having worked at Our Lady of the Lake for more than 50 years, Simmons has seen a lot of changes and can confirm the unwavering commitment to our Baton Rouge community and beyond.
Why Nursing and Why Our Lady of the Lake?
Simmons was born at Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium and laughs when she says, “That’s pretty neat to be able to say: I was born at the Lake and I’ll probably die here.”
Growing up, Simmons was inspired by three aunts who were nurses and worked at Our Lady of the Lake. “As a child, I always admired them and their uniforms with nursing caps,” Simmons remembers.
“In high school there weren’t many options for a young woman,” Simmons says. “My parents weren’t prepared to send me to college, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” She decided to go to the nursing school her aunts went to: Our Lady of the Lake School of Nursing, which has now become Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University (FranU).
“I fell in love with nursing within a couple of weeks,” she says. “I enjoyed the science of it and the art of nursing, practicing what I learned while taking care of patients.”
Simmons’ family owned The Cotton Club restaurant for more than 60 years in Baton Rouge. “I come from a long line of customer service,” she says. “I grew up helping my father cook and serve customers, so I knew what it was to take care of people.”
Meeting Our Sisters
Simmons’ relationship with the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Sisters dates back to an experience when she was 8 years old: a visiting aunt was seven months pregnant and went into labor.
“My mom said we had to go to the hospital, so we went to the Lake of course,” Simmons remembers. “Everyone embraced Margaret, who was British and didn’t know anyone.” That’s when Simmons first met some of the older Sisters, including Mother Gertrude Hennessy.
“I admire and love working for the Sisters,” Simmons says. “They’re fun and very sweet.”
Navigating Her Nursing Career Path
Simmons graduated from Our Lady of the Lake School of Nursing in December 1969. “I graduated on a Sunday, and I came to work on Monday,” she says.
Starting as a MedSurg bedside nurse, Simmons had one brief stint away from Our Lady of the Lake when she and her first husband were stationed at Fort Johnson (then Fort Polk) in central Louisiana. She worked off post as a civilian nurse.
“I had that experience and then came back to the Lake,” Simmons says. “That’s where I’ve been ever since.”
After working as a bedside nurse for a few years, Simmons began working in the education department around the time the new hospital on Essen Lane was being built.
“I had an opportunity to come over here while they were still building to learn the systems and operations to bring them over,” she says. “A lot of what we had here we didn’t have at the old place.”
One of the new features of the hospital, which opened in 1978, was a pneumatic tube system to send things quickly from one place to another in the hospital. It’s still operational at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
“We had to train people how to use it properly. At first it wasn’t running right,” Simmons says. “Sometimes they’d get stuck in the ceiling or wall. We learned quickly: don’t send any specimens through the tube — walk them to the lab.”
Into the New Hospital
On April 2, 1978, when patients were moved from the original hospital campus downtown to the new hospital on Essen Lane, Simmons’ assignment was to receive team members and patients.
“Within 24 to 36 hours we were basically full,” she remembers. “Not only those patients but everybody else wanted to come to the new hospital.” It was stressful getting the teams oriented, but everything was ironed out quickly.
Saying goodbye to what had been home for several years, from nursing school through the first years of her career, wasn’t easy.
“About two days after we’d made the move one of the Sisters took a few of us over to the old place,” Simmons says. “I remember it was just so heartbreaking to see those empty spaces. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”
Simmons’ career continued in the new space. Once teams were settled, she transitioned from education to infection control, where she served for about 15 years. In 1998, then-CEO Robert Davidge asked her to lead the emergency department, and she was there for a decade as its director.
In 2006, Simmons joined the regulatory team, working to support not only Our Lady of the Lake but also other hospitals within the health system, covering more than 3 million square feet within all the buildings.
“In those years, I’ve seen the strategic mission in action and been part of it,” she says. Simmons played an important role in providing care in 2008 after Hurricane Gustav hit Baton Rouge terribly hard. The hospital was even without power for days. Simmons stepped up to welcome teams who came to help.
In addition to licensing two new emergency departments, Livingston (2012) and North Baton Rouge (2017), Simmons played a big role in uniting Our Lady of the Lake Ascension (then St. Elizabeth Hospital, 2000). She has been part of setting up the first Lake After Hours location, senior services and nursing homes being established, as well as being part of opening two hospitals with the Heart & Vascular Institute (2013) and Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital (2019).
Adapting During a Worldwide Pandemic
Across her career, Simmons has seen diseases make huge impacts on the industry and healthcare professionals. From HIV/AIDS in the 1980s to Ebola outbreaks, she’s been part of educating and supporting team members to recognize, contain and protect themselves while caring for patients.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The request for more patient beds was an everyday affair, and Simmons would assist with planning. “I’d have to sit down with my CNO, look at the bed plan and try to figure out where we could put 20 more ICU beds and flip them very quickly,” she says.
What Has Stayed the Same
Simmons jokes that the struggle over parking and traffic is something that’s remained the same over her 50+ years at Our Lady of the Lake. But it’s really the mission of the ministry that’s been a constant over her career here.
“I’ve always felt that connection to the Sisters and serving as part of the ministry to take care of patients,” she says. “That’s what’s stayed the same: a high ethical and high-quality standard, and we’re very tied to our community.”
Listening has been another constant throughout Simmons’ decades at Our Lady of the Lake. “Sometimes the unspoken words are the most important, so listening with all your senses is important.”
A Legacy of Dedication
“I’ve seen a lot of growth and it’s all based on the strategic needs of where we need to be next,” Simmons says. “It’s amazing to see the vision that our Sisters, our board and our administration has had in trying to keep us moving forward.”
Reflecting on her career, Simmons says she has enjoyed the challenges over the years and the career options being part of a health system has provided. “If you don’t like doing this, you can look at something else and try a different pathway,” she says. “I wouldn’t do anything else or work anywhere else.”