It's said that one shouldn't make big decisions in an emotional state, but the one Kristi Perry made at 15 worked out pretty well.
"I had my appendix out," she recalls. "I was crying, in pain, didn't know what to expect and just wanted it to stop.
"A nurse came and sat with me for 30 minutes and just talked to me," she says. "I decided I wanted to be the kind of person she was."
The Cleveland, Tennessee, native went on to earn nursing degrees from Chattanooga State, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Capella University. She's in her 33rd year of nursing, is an internationally board-certified lactation consultant for Erlanger Health System and is this year's recipient of the Champions of Health Care award for individual community outreach.
"Kristi was a godsend during our journey as new parents," Dr. Mitch Dizon, an Erlanger gynecological surgeon and instructor, writes in nominating Perry. "She helped my wife so much throughout the breastfeeding process, providing so much support and education.
"She is passionate about educating new parents to prepare for the birth of their children," Dizon adds. "I know she has played a huge role in many parents' success stories."
Perry recalls that choosing her field was a bit of a fork-in-the-road proposition.
"When I graduated nursing school, I had two offers -- intensive care/trauma and labor/delivery. I chose labor and delivery because I didn't want to work (overnights). So now I've been working with moms and babies for 33 years," she says, adding that the last 15 of those have been at Erlanger.
Perry says she teaches a four-week class for prospective moms in their last trimesters -- one week each on childbirth, breast feeding, baby care/safety and infancy CPR, respectively.
"In that last trimester, you need evidence-based information," she says.
"Lactation can be technically challenging and emotional for mothers," she adds. "When you come to the hospital to have the baby, you have doctors and nurses taking care of you through labor and delivery. But they're all gone when you have the baby, so it's up to you -- I'll help the baby latch a million times (before discharge), but I can't go home with you to help."
Perry says the first hour after delivery, known as the "golden hour," can be vital for new mothers and their newborns.
"We try to see them in the first hour, and get them nursing right away," she says. "Studies show that the more contact a baby gets with its mother on that very first day can affect milk supply six months down the road."
What do you do to relax/beat stress?
This'll sound really boring, but I like to sit outside and watch my bird sanctuary that I created this year. I put an app on my phone that tells you, when you take a picture of a bird, what kind of bird it is. I'm also an avid gardener.
What led you to become a medical professional?
I'd wanted to be a nurse since I was 15. It's just having that connection with people who are struggling.
If you had to choose another profession, what would it be and why?
Veterinarian. I love animals. I grew up on a farm and my dad was a big hunter -- he hunted wild boar and bear. I never ate store-bought meat until I got married.